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Open Access Research article

Abandoning sex: multiple origins of asexuality in the ciliate Tetrahymena

F Paul Doerder

Author Affiliations

Department of Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences, Cleveland State University, 2121 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115, USA

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:112  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-112

Published: 28 May 2014

Abstract

Background

By segregating somatic and germinal functions into large, compound macronuclei and small diploid micronuclei, respectively, ciliates can explore sexuality in ways other eukaryotes cannot. Sex, for instance, is not for reproduction but for nuclear replacement in the two cells temporarily joined in conjugation. With equal contributions from both conjugants, there is no cost of sex which theory predicts should favor asexuality. Yet ciliate asexuality is rare. The exceptional Tetrahymena has abandoned sex through loss of the micronucleus; its amicronucleates are abundant in nature where they reproduce by binary fission but never form conjugating pairs. A possible reason for their abundance is that the Tetrahymena macronucleus does not accumulate mutations as proposed by Muller’s ratchet. As such, Tetrahymena amicronucleates have the potential to be very old. This study used cytochrome oxidase-1 barcodes to determine the phylogenetic origin and relative age of amicronucleates isolated from nature.

Results

Amicronucleates constituted 25% of Tetrahymena-like wild isolates. Of the 244 amicronucleates examined for cox1 barcodes, 237 belonged to Tetrahymena, seven to other genera. Sixty percent originated from 12 named species or barcoded strains, including the model Tetrahymena thermophila, while the remaining 40% represent 19 putative new species, eight of which have micronucleate counterparts and 11 of which are known only as amicronucleates. In some instances, cox1 haplotypes were shared among micronucleate and amicronucleates collected from the same source. Phylogenetic analysis showed that most amicronucleates belong to the “borealis” clade in which mating type is determined by gene rearrangement. Some amicronucleate species were clustered on the SSU phylogenetic tree and had longer branch lengths, indicating more ancient origin.

Conclusions

Naturally occurring Tetrahymena amicronucleates have multiple origins, arising from numerous species. Likely many more new species remain to be discovered. Shared haplotypes indicate that some are of contemporary origin, while phylogeny indicates that others may be millions of years old. The apparent success of amicronucleate Tetrahymena may be because macronuclear assortment and recombination allow them to avoid Muller’s ratchet, incorporate beneficial mutations, and evolve independently of sex. The inability of amicronucleates to mate may be the result of error(s) in mating type gene rearrangement.

Keywords:
Asexual; Amicronucleate; Natural populations; Barcode; Putative new species; Evolution; Muller’s ratchet; Macronuclear assortment