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Higher rates of sex evolve in spatially heterogeneous environments

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Becks, L., & Agrawal, A. F. (2010). Higher rates of sex evolve in spatially heterogeneous environments. Nature (London), 468(7320), 89-92. doi:10.1038/nature09449.

The evolution and maintenance of sexual reproduction has puzzled biologists for decades(1,2). Although this field is rich in hypotheses(3-5), experimental evidence is scarce. Some important experiments have demonstrated differences in evolutionary rates between sexual and asexual populations(6-8); other experiments have documented evolutionary changes in phenomena related to genetic mixing, such as recombination(9,10) and selfing(11). However, direct experiments of the evolution of sex within populations are extremely rare (but see ref. 12). Here we use the rotifer, Brachionus calyciflorus, which is capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction, to test recent theory(13-15) predicting that there is more opportunity for sex to evolve in spatially heterogeneous environments. Replicated experimental populations of rotifers were maintained in homogeneous environments, composed of either high-or low-quality food habitats, or in heterogeneous environments that consisted of a mix of the two habitats. For populations maintained in either type of homogeneous environment, the rate of sex evolves rapidly towards zero. In contrast, higher rates of sex evolve in populations experiencing spatially heterogeneous environments. The data indicate that the higher level of sex observed under heterogeneity is not due to sex being less costly or selection against sex being less efficient; rather sex is sufficiently advantageous in heterogeneous environments to overwhelm its inherent costs(2). Counter to some alternative theories(16,17) for the evolution of sex, there is no evidence that genetic drift plays any part in the evolution of sex in these populations.