Genetic architecture and the evolution of sex

Theoretical investigations of the advantages of sex have tended to treat the genetic architecture of organisms as static and have not considered that genetic architecture might coevolve with reproductive mode. As a result, some potential advantages of sex may have been missed. Using a gene network model, we recently showed that recombination imposes selection for robustness to mutation and that negative epistasis can evolve as a by-product of this selection. These results motivated a detailed exploration of the mutational deterministic hypothesis, a hypothesis in which the advantage of sex depends critically on epistasis. We found that sexual populations do evolve higher mean fitness and lower genetic load than asexual populations at equilibrium, and, under moderate stabilizing selection and large population size, these equilibrium sexual populations resist invasion by asexuals. However, we found no evidence that these long- and short-term advantages to sex were explained by the negative epistasis that evolved in our experiments. The long-term advantage of sex was that sexual populations evolved a lower deleterious mutation rate, but this property was not sufficient to account for the ability of sexual populations to resist invasion by asexuals. The ability to resist asexual invasion was acquired simultaneously with an increase in recombinational robustness that minimized the cost of sex. These observations provide the first direct evidence that sexual reproduction does indeed select for conditions that favor its own maintenance. Furthermore, our results highlight the importance of considering a dynamic view of the genetic architecture to understand the evolution of sex and recombination.

Lohaus, R., Burch, C. L., Azevedo, R. B. R. (2010) Genetic architecture and the evolution of sex. J. Hered. 101 Suppl 1:S142-57.

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