Background: The self-fertile hermaphrodite worm C. elegans is an important model organism for biology, yet little is known about the origin and persistence of the self-fertilizing mode of reproduction in this lineage. Recent work has demonstrated an extraordinary degree of selfing combined with a high deleterious mutation rate in contemporary populations. These observations raise the question as to whether the mutation load might rise to such a degree as to eventually threaten the species with extinction. The potential for such a process to occur would inform our understanding of the time since the origin of self-fertilization in C. elegans history.
Results: To address this issue, here we quantify the rate of fitness decline expected to occur via Muller's ratchet for a purely selfing population, using both analytical approximations and globally distributed individual-based simulations from the evolution@home system to compute the rate of deleterious mutation accumulation. Using the best available estimates for parameters of how C. elegans evolves, we conclude that pure selfing can persist for only short evolutionary intervals, and is expected to lead to extinction within thousands of years for a plausible portion of parameter space. Credible lower-bound estimates of nuclear mutation rates do not extend the expected time to extinction much beyond a million years.
Conclusion: Thus we conclude that either the extreme self-fertilization implied by current patterns of genetic variation in C. elegans arose relatively recently or that low levels of outcrossing and other factors are key to the persistence of C. elegans into the present day. We also discuss results for the mitochondrial genome and the implications for C. briggsae, a close relative that made the transition to selfing independently of C. elegans.