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Open Access Research article

Evolution of sexual asymmetry

Tamás L Czárán1* and Rolf F Hoekstra2

Author Affiliations

1 Theoretical Biology and Ecology Research Group of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Eötvös University, H-1117 Budapest, Pázmány Péter sétány 1/c, Hungary

2 Laboratory of Genetics, Department of Plant Sciences, Wageningen University, Arboretumlaan 4, 6703 BD Wageningen, The Netherlands

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2004, 4:34  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-4-34

Published: 21 September 2004

Abstract

Background

The clear dominance of two-gender sex in recent species is a notorious puzzle of evolutionary theory. It has at least two layers: besides the most fundamental and challenging question why sex exists at all, the other part of the problem is equally perplexing but much less studied. Why do most sexual organisms use a binary mating system? Even if sex confers an evolutionary advantage (through whatever genetic mechanism), why does it manifest that advantage in two, and exactly two, genders (or mating types)? Why not just one, and why not more than two?

Results

Assuming that sex carries an inherent fitness advantage over pure clonal multiplication, we attempt to give a feasible solution to the problem of the evolution of dimorphic sexual asymmetry as opposed to monomorphic symmetry by using a spatial (cellular automaton) model and its non-spatial (mean-field) approximation. Based on a comparison of the spatial model to the mean-field approximation we suggest that spatial population structure must have played a significant role in the evolution of mating types, due to the largely clonal (self-aggregated) spatial distribution of gamete types, which is plausible in aquatic habitats for physical reasons, and appears to facilitate the evolution of a binary mating system.

Conclusions

Under broad ecological and genetic conditions the cellular automaton predicts selective removal from the population of supposedly primitive gametes that are able to mate with their own type, whereas the non-spatial model admits coexistence of the primitive type and the mating types. Thus we offer a basically ecological solution to a theoretical problem that earlier models based on random gamete encounters had failed to resolve.