Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Mitochondrial DNA paradox: sex-specific genetic structure in a marine mussel – despite maternal inheritance and passive dispersal

Peter R Teske123*, Isabelle Papadopoulos1, Nigel P Barker2 and Christopher D McQuaid1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Zoology and Entomology, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa

2 Molecular Ecology and Systematics Group, Botany Department, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa

3 Molecular Ecology Laboratory, School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia, 5001, Australia

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BMC Genetics 2012, 13:45  doi:10.1186/1471-2156-13-45

Published: 13 June 2012



When genetic structure is identified using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), but no structure is identified using biparentally-inherited nuclear DNA, the discordance is often attributed to differences in dispersal potential between the sexes.


We sampled the intertidal rocky shore mussel Perna perna in a South African bay and along the nearby open coast, and sequenced maternally-inherited mtDNA (there is no evidence for paternally-inherited mtDNA in this species) and a biparentally-inherited marker. By treating males and females as different populations, we identified significant genetic structure on the basis of mtDNA data in the females only.


This is the first study to report sex-specific differences in genetic structure based on matrilineally-inherited mtDNA in a passively dispersing species that lacks social structure or sexual dimorphism. The observed pattern most likely stems from females being more vulnerable to selection in habitats from which they did not originate, which also manifests itself in a male-biased sex ratio. Our results have three important implications for the interpretation of population genetic data. First, even when mtDNA is inherited exclusively in the female line, it also contains information about males. For that reason, using it to identify sex-specific differences in genetic structure by contrasting it with biparentally-inherited markers is problematic. Second, the fact that sex-specific differences were found in a passively dispersing species in which sex-biased dispersal is unlikely highlights the fact that significant genetic structure is not necessarily a function of low dispersal potential or physical barriers. Third, even though mtDNA is typically used to study historical demographic processes, it also contains information about contemporary processes. Higher survival rates of males in non-native habitats can erase the genetic structure present in their mothers within a single generation.