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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Mutation accumulation and fitness effects in hybridogenetic populations: a comparison to sexual and asexual systems

Christian Som12, Homayoun C Bagheri1 and Heinz-Ulrich Reyer1*

Author Affiliations

1 Zoological Institute, University of Zürich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland

2 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Hohlstrasse 110, CH-8010 Zürich, Switzerland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:80  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-80

Published: 21 May 2007



Female only unisexual vertebrates that reproduce by hybridogenesis show an unusual genetic composition. They are of hybrid origin but show no recombination between the genomes of their parental species. Instead, the paternal genome is discarded from the germline prior to meiosis, and gametes (eggs only) contain solely unrecombined maternal genomes. Hence hybridogens only transmit maternally inherited mutations. Hybridity is restored each generation by backcrossing with males of the sexual parental species whose genome was eliminated. In contrast, recombining sexual species propagate an intermixed pool of mutations derived from the maternal and paternal parts of the genome. If mutation rates are lower in female gametes than males, it raises the possibility for lower mutation accumulation in a hybridogenetic population, and consequently, higher population fitness than its sexual counterpart.


We show through Monte-Carlo simulations that at higher male to female mutation ratios, and sufficiently large population sizes, hybridogenetic populations can carry a lower mutation load than sexual species. This effect is more pronounced with synergistic forms of epistasis. Mutations accumulate faster on the sexual part of the genome, and with the purifying effects of epistasis, it makes it more difficult for mutations to be transmitted on the clonal part of the genome. In smaller populations, the same mechanism reduces the speed of Muller's Ratchet and the number of fixed mutations compared to similar asexual species.


Since mutation accumulation can be less pronounced in hybridogenetic populations, the question arises why hybridogenetic organisms are so scarce compared to sexual species. In considering this, it is likely that comparison of population fitnesses is not sufficient. Despite competition with the sexual parental species, hybrid populations are dependent on the maintenance of – and contact with – their sexual counterpart. Other problems may involve too little genetic diversity to respond to changing environments and problems in becoming hybridogenetic (e.g. disruption of meiosis and subsequent infertility or sterility). Yet, lower mutation accumulation in hybridogenetic populations opens the possibility that hybridogenetic species can develop into new sexual species once recombination is re-established and reproductive isolation from sexual ancestors has occurred.