Diversification in sexual and asexual organisms

Evolution. 2003 Sep;57(9):2166-72. doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2003.tb00394.x.


Sexual reproduction has long been proposed as a major factor explaining the existence of species and species diversity. Yet, the importance of sex for diversification remains obscure because of a lack of critical theory, difficulties of applying universal concepts of species and speciation, and above all the scarcity of empirical tests. Here, we use genealogical theory to compare the relative tendency of strictly sexual and asexual organisms to diversify into discrete genotypic and morphological clusters. We conclude that asexuals are expected to display discrete clusters similar to those found in sexual organisms. Whether sexuals or asexuals display stronger clustering depends on a number of factors, but in at least some scenarios asexuals should display a stronger pattern. Confounding factors aside, the only explanation we identify for stronger patterns of diversification in sexuals than asexuals is if the faster rates of adaptive change conferred by sexual reproduction promote greater clustering. Quantitative comparisons of diversification in related sexual and asexual taxa are needed to resolve this issue. The answer should shed light not only on the importance of the different stages leading to diversification, but also on the adaptive consequences of sex, still largely unexplored from a macroevolutionary perspective.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological
  • Animals
  • Biodiversity*
  • Geography
  • Models, Biological*
  • Reproduction / genetics*
  • Reproduction, Asexual / genetics*
  • Rotifera / genetics