The gametes of unicellular eukaryotes are morphologically identical, but are nonetheless divided into distinct mating types. The number of mating types varies enormously and can reach several thousand, yet most species have only two. Why do morphologically identical gametes need to be differentiated into self-incompatible mating types, and why is two the most common number of mating types? In this work, we explore a neglected hypothesis that there is a need for asymmetric signalling interactions between mating partners. Our review shows that isogamous gametes always interact asymmetrically throughout sex and argue that this asymmetry is favoured because it enhances the efficiency of the mating process. We further develop a simple mathematical model that allows us to study the evolution of the number of mating types based on the strength of signalling interactions between gametes. Novel mating types have an advantage as they are compatible with all others and rarely meet their own type. But if existing mating types coevolve to have strong mutual interactions, this restricts the spread of novel types. Similarly, coevolution is likely to drive out less attractive mating types. These countervailing forces specify the number of mating types that are evolutionarily stable.This article is part of the themed issue 'Weird sex: the underappreciated diversity of sexual reproduction'.
Keywords: gametes; isogamy; mating types; sexes; signalling.
© 2016 The Authors.