Why mating types exist at all is subject to much debate. Among hypotheses, mating types evolved to control organelle transmission during sexual reproduction, or to prevent inbreeding or same-clone mating. Here I review data from a diversity of taxa (including ciliates, algae, slime molds, ascomycetes, and basidiomycetes) to show that the structure and function of mating types run counter the above hypotheses. I argue instead for a key role in triggering developmental switches. Genomes must fulfill a diversity of alternative programs along the sexual cycle. As a haploid gametophyte, an individual may grow vegetatively (through haploid mitoses), or initiate gametogenesis and mating. As a diploid sporophyte, similarly, it may grow vegetatively (through diploid mitoses) or initiate meiosis and sporulation. Only diploid sporophytes (and not haploid gametophytes) should switch on the meiotic program. Similarly, only haploid gametophytes (not sporophytes) should switch on gametogenesis and mating. And they should only do so when other gametophytes are ready to do the same in the neighborhood. As argued here, mating types have evolved primarily to switch on the right program at the right moment.
© 2012 The Author(s). Evolution© 2012 The Society for the Study of Evolution.