You’ve probably never given much consideration to why there are men and women. Or, more specifically, why there are two sexes, rather than one, three or 50. But this is a question that has been keeping some scientists awake at night for decades. Recent research in the department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment used mathematical models of evolution to investigate how the evolution of the two sexes was influenced by the inheritance patterns of the energy-producing organelle, mitochondria. The results of this model contradict previous work supporting the idea that inheritance of mitochondria through only one parent might explain the emergence of two sexes. The evolutionary dynamics of mitochondrial inheritance are more complex than previously thought.
Sexual reproduction is a beneficial thing, in evolutionary terms, but this benefit doesn’t depend upon there being different sexes, only on there being two individuals sharing their genes to produce an offspring. This system would also work with no sexes at all (everyone can mate with everyone), or with many sexes. In fact, two is actually the worst number you could have picked – with two sexes any individual is limited to an available pool of mates just 50% of the population. With three sexes, this pool would increase to 66% of the population, with four 75%, and so on. So why have most sexually-reproducing species on settled on two sexes?
In a few previous GEE blog articles (see here and here), I have discussed the phenomenon known as ‘uniparental mitochondrial inheritance’ (UPI), in which mitochondria, organelles found in our cells that are responsible for generating energy, are inherited only through the maternal line – that is, you inherit all of your mitochondria from your mother and none from your father. UPI is found in many living things, although some species do things a bit differently and there are many different ways to achieve the same result. Work by GEE researcher Professor John Allen has previously shown that the mitochondria within egg cells in jellyfish, fruit flies and fish are largely inactive; this inactivity allows for a perfect ‘mitochondrial template’ to be passed on to the offspring and prevent the accumulation of mutations through the generations. Essentially, this is why aging isn’t heritable. It wouldn’t work to inactivate sperm mitochondria because they need so much energy for all that swimming, so if we did inherit mitochondria from our fathers they would probably be mutated. UPI is also thought to help evolution remove harmful mutations from the population and reduce conflict and promote coadpatation between the mitochondrial symbiont and its host cell.
So, UPI makes a lot of sense, evolutionarily, and some scientists think it might also explain why we have two sexes, as opposed to any other mating system. It’s important to be clear, when we talk about having two sexes we’re saying nothing about the external differences between the sexes (sexual dimorphism) observed in many multicellular organisms. We’re talking about the existence of two ‘mating types’, such that individuals cannot mate with members of the same type. Recent research by another group of GEE academics including Professor Andrew Pomiankowski, Dr Nick Lane and Professor Robert Seymour, investigated the evolution of UPI and in particular it’s relationship with the evolution of a two-sex mating system. We might expect a strong link between UPI and the existence of two sexes, since uniparental inheritance immediately generates differences between the two mating partners, and ensures that reproduction is not possible unless one member of each ‘type’ is present. Although UPI is often thought to have been a key driver in the evolution of mating types, there have been few investigations of what conditions are needed for the fitness benefits of UPI to actively drive the emergence of two mating types. So the authors developed a new mathematical model of mitochondrial inheritance and the evolution of UPI in a population where biparental inheritance (BPI) is the norm. They incorporated mitochondrial mutation (which might sometimes be selfish) and selection into the model, and included different mating types.
The model agreed with a great deal of previous work that indicates that UPI tends to increase fitness. It does so slowly, with selection acting cumulatively across many generations to remove less fit mitochondrial variants and increase fitness for UPI individuals. In a population of individuals where mitochondria is inherited biparentally, a new mutation causing UPI exists in a single individual. Slowly UPI improves the fitness of cells by reducing the number of mutated mitochondria they carry, and the UPI mutation might start to spread in the population. The problem is, as it spreads the benefits of UPI are inevitably leaked into the rest of the BPI population – UPI individuals mate with BPI individuals producing some BPI offspring who carry the fitter mitochondria from their UPI parent. This leaking of benefits means that the fitness benefits of UPI are frequency-dependent; the more common UPI becomes in a population, the less each UPI individual benefits from the reproductive strategy. This makes it hard for UPI to fully take over a population – their model tended instead to produce mixed populations with some UPI and some BPI individuals interbreeding.
If the researchers included mating types in the model at the start of it’s evolutionary run, then UPI could become associated with specific mating types and in this situation, so long as mutation rates were high or each cell carried many mitochondria, UPI could spread to fixation in the population. But UPI itself was not able to alter the number or existence of mating types. The authors suggest that this may explain the continuum of UPI levels we observe in nature. For any given species, the occurrence of UPI will depend upon the evolutionary starting point, energetic demands, mutation rates and the selfish (or unselfish) nature of mutations.
Although most people never even consider why we have two sexes, male and female, the evolution of a two mating-type system is seemingly paradoxical and many theories and hypotheses have been proposed to explain it. One such explanation is that uniparental inheritance, which is critical for stabilising the mitochondria-cell symbiosis and preventing the accumulation of harmful mutations, may have driven the evolution of two sexes. However, mathematical modelling by scientists in GEE suggests this is not the case, and UPI more likely evolved after the two mating-type system emerged. In their model, although UPI initially spreads through populations, it’s fitness benefits are frequency-dependent, meaning it only rarely takes over an entire population. Populations in which all members inherit mitochondrial uniparentally are only possible when a mutation causing UPI becomes tighly linked to genes that determine mating type. The initial emergence of two mating types still requires an explanation independent from mitochondrial inheritance patterns.
This research was made possible by funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Leverhulm Trust.