The evolution of sex is one of the most important and controversial problems in evolutionary biology. Although sex is almost universal in higher animals and plants, its inherent costs have made its maintenance difficult to explain. The most famous of these is the twofold cost of males, which can greatly reduce the fecundity of a sexual population, compared to a population of asexual females. Over the past century, multiple hypotheses, along with experimental evidence to support these, have been put forward to explain widespread costly sex. In this review, we outline some of the most prominent theories, along with the experimental and observational evidence supporting these. Historically, there have been 4 classes of theories: the ability of sex to fix multiple novel advantageous mutants (Fisher-Muller hypothesis); sex as a mechanism to stop the build-up of deleterious mutations in finite populations (Muller's ratchet); recombination creating novel genotypes that can resist infection by parasites (Red Queen hypothesis); and the ability of sex to purge bad genomes if deleterious mutations act synergistically (mutational deterministic hypothesis). Current theoretical and experimental evidence seems to favor the hypothesis that sex breaks down selection interference between new mutants, or it acts as a mechanism to shuffle genotypes in order to repel parasitic invasion. However, there is still a need to collect more data from natural populations and experimental studies, which can be used to test different hypotheses.
© 2012 ISZS, Blackwell Publishing and IOZ/CAS.