The advantage of sex has been among the most debated issues in biology. Surprisingly, the question of why sexual reproduction generally requires the combination of distinct gamete classes, such as small and large gametes, or gametes with different mating types, has been much less investigated. Why do systems with alternative gamete classes (i.e. systems with either anisogamy or mating types or both) appear even though they restrict the probability of finding a compatible mating partner? Why does the number of gamete classes vary from zero to thousands, with most often only two classes? We review here the hypotheses proposed to explain the origin, maintenance, number, and loss of gamete classes. We argue that fungi represent highly suitable models to help resolve issues related to the evolution of distinct gamete classes, because the number of mating types vary from zero to thousands across taxa, anisogamy is present or not, and because there are frequent transitions between these conditions. We review the nature and number of gamete classes in fungi, and we attempt to draw inferences from these data on the evolutionary forces responsible for their appearance, loss or maintenance, and number.
© 2010 The Authors. Biological Reviews © 2010 Cambridge Philosophical Society.