Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Evolutionary Biology and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

The maintenance of sex: Ronald Fisher meets the Red Queen

David Green* and Chris Mason

Author Affiliations

Department of Anatomy, University of Otago Medical School, Great King Street, Dunedin 9016, New Zealand

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:174  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-174

Published: 21 August 2013



Sex in higher diploids carries a two-fold cost of males that should reduce its fitness relative to cloning, and result in its extinction. Instead, sex is widespread and clonal species face early obsolescence. One possible reason is that sex is an adaptation that allows organisms to respond more effectively to endless changes in their environment. The purpose of this study was to model mutation and selection in a diploid organism in an evolving environment and ascertain their support for sex.


We used a computational approach to model finite populations where a haploid environment subjects a diploid host to endlessly evolving change. Evolution in both populations is primarily through adoption of novel advantageous mutations within a large allele space. Sex outcompetes cloning by two complementary mechanisms. First, sexual diploids adopt advantageous homozygous mutations more rapidly than clonal ones under conditions of lag load (the gap between the actual adaptation of the diploid population and its theoretical optimum). This rate advantage can offset the higher fecundity of cloning. Second, a relative advantage to sex emerges where populations are significantly polymorphic, because clonal polymorphism runs the risk of clonal interference caused by selection on numerous lines of similar adaptation. This interference extends allele lifetime and reduces the rate of adaptation. Sex abolishes the interference, making selection faster and elevating population fitness. Differences in adaptation between sexual and clonal populations increase markedly with the number of loci under selection, the rate of mutation in the host, and a rapidly evolving environment. Clonal interference in these circumstances leads to conditions where the greater fecundity of clones is unable to offset their poor adaptation. Sexual and clonal populations then either co-exist, or sex emerges as the more stable evolutionary strategy.


Sex can out-compete clones in a rapidly evolving environment, such as that characterized by pathogens, where clonal interference reduces the adaptation of clonal populations and clones adopt advantageous mutations more slowly. Since all organisms carry parasitic loads, the model is of potentially general applicability.

Maintenance of sex; Advantageous mutation; Frequency-dependent selection; Red Queen; Computational model