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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The role of hermaphrodites in the experimental evolution of increased outcrossing rates in Caenorhabditis elegans

Sara Carvalho1, Ivo M Chelo1, Christine Goy1 and Henrique Teotónio12*

Author Affiliations

1 Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, P-2781-901 Oeiras, Portugal

2 École Normale Supérieure, Institut de Biologie de l’ENS (IBENS), and Inserm U1024, and CNRS UMR 8197, F-75005 Paris, France

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:116  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-116

Published: 2 June 2014



Why most organisms reproduce via outcrossing rather than selfing is a central question in evolutionary biology. It has long ago been suggested that outcrossing is favoured when it facilitates adaptation to novel environments. We have previously shown that the experimental evolution of increased outcrossing rates in populations of the male-hermaphrodite nematode Caenorhabditis elegans were correlated with the experimental evolution of increased male fitness. However, it is unknown whether outcrossing led to adaptation, and if so, which fitness components can explain the observed increase in outcrossing rates.


Using experimental evolution in six populations with initially low standing levels of genetic diversity, we show with head-to-head competition assays that population-wide fitness improved during 100 generations. Since outcrossing rates increased during the same period, this result demonstrates that outcrossing is adaptive. We also show that there was little evolution of hermaphrodite fitness under conditions of selfing or under conditions of outcrossing with unrelated tester males. We nonetheless find a positive genetic correlation between hermaphrodite self-fitness and population-wide fitness, and a negative genetic correlation between hermaphrodite mating success and population-wide fitness. These results suggest that the several hermaphrodite traits measured are fitness components. Tradeoffs expressed in hermaphrodites, particularly noticed between self-fitness and mating success, may in turn explain their lack of change during experimental evolution.


Our findings indicate that outcrossing facilitates adaptation to novel environments. They further indicate that the experimental evolution of increased outcrossing rates depended little on hermaphrodites because of fitness tradeoffs between selfing and outcrossing. Instead, the evolution of increased outcrossing rates appears to have resulted from unhindered selection on males.