Outcrossing and the maintenance of males within C. elegans populations

J Hered. Mar-Apr 2010;101 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S62-74. doi: 10.1093/jhered/esq003. Epub 2010 Mar 8.


Caenorhabditis elegans is an androdioecious nematode with both hermaphrodites and males. Although males can potentially play an important role in avoiding inbreeding and facilitating adaptation, their existence is evolutionarily problematic because they do not directly generate offspring in the way that hermaphrodites do. This review explores how genetic, population genomic, and experimental evolution approaches are being used to address the role of males and outcrossing within C. elegans. Although theory suggests that inbreeding depression and male mating ability should be the primary determinants of male frequency, this has yet to be convincingly confirmed experimentally. Genomic analysis of natural populations finds that outcrossing occurs at low, but not negligible levels, and that observed patterns of linkage disequilibrium consistent with strong selfing may instead be generated by natural selection against outcrossed progeny. Recent experimental evolution studies suggest that males can be maintained at fairly high levels if populations are initiated with sufficient genetic variation and/or subjected to strong natural selection via a change in the environment. For example, as reported here, populations adapting to novel laboratory rearing and temperature regimes maintain males at frequencies from 5% to 40%. Laboratory and field results still await full reconciliation, which may be facilitated by identifying the loci underlying among-strain differences in mating system dynamics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics*
  • Disorders of Sex Development
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Linkage Disequilibrium
  • Male
  • Models, Biological*
  • Reproduction / genetics*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Sex Ratio*
  • Temperature