Selection against heteroplasmy explains the evolution of uniparental inheritance of mitochondria

PLoS Genet. 2015 Apr 16;11(4):e1005112. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1005112. eCollection 2015 Apr.


Why are mitochondria almost always inherited from one parent during sexual reproduction? Current explanations for this evolutionary mystery include conflict avoidance between the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes, clearing of deleterious mutations, and optimization of mitochondrial-nuclear coadaptation. Mathematical models, however, fail to show that uniparental inheritance can replace biparental inheritance under any existing hypothesis. Recent empirical evidence indicates that mixing two different but normal mitochondrial haplotypes within a cell (heteroplasmy) can cause cell and organism dysfunction. Using a mathematical model, we test if selection against heteroplasmy can lead to the evolution of uniparental inheritance. When we assume selection against heteroplasmy and mutations are neither advantageous nor deleterious (neutral mutations), uniparental inheritance replaces biparental inheritance for all tested parameter values. When heteroplasmy involves mutations that are advantageous or deleterious (non-neutral mutations), uniparental inheritance can still replace biparental inheritance. We show that uniparental inheritance can evolve with or without pre-existing mating types. Finally, we show that selection against heteroplasmy can explain why some organisms deviate from strict uniparental inheritance. Thus, we suggest that selection against heteroplasmy explains the evolution of uniparental inheritance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Genes, Mitochondrial*
  • Haplotypes*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / genetics*
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Selection, Genetic*

Grant support

JRC received funding from the Winton Charitable Foundation ( MB received funding from the Australian Research Council ( (DP140100560). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.