What do isogamous organisms teach us about sex and the two sexes?

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 Oct 19;371(1706):20150532. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0532.


Isogamy is a reproductive system where all gametes are morphologically similar, especially in terms of size. Its importance goes beyond specific cases: to this day non-anisogamous systems are common outside of multicellular animals and plants, they can be found in all eukaryotic super-groups, and anisogamous organisms appear to have isogamous ancestors. Furthermore, because maleness is synonymous with the production of small gametes, an explanation for the initial origin of males and females is synonymous with understanding the transition from isogamy to anisogamy. As we show here, this transition may also be crucial for understanding why sex itself remains common even in taxa with high costs of male production (the twofold cost of sex). The transition to anisogamy implies the origin of male and female sexes, kickstarts the subsequent evolution of sex roles, and has a major impact on the costliness of sexual reproduction. Finally, we combine some of the consequences of isogamy and anisogamy in a thought experiment on the maintenance of sexual reproduction. We ask what happens if there is a less than twofold benefit to sex (not an unlikely scenario as large short-term benefits have proved difficult to find), and argue that this could lead to a situation where lineages that evolve anisogamy-and thus the highest costs of sex-end up being associated with constraints that make invasion by asexual reproduction unlikely (the 'anisogamy gateway' hypothesis).This article is part of the themed issue 'Weird sex: the underappreciated diversity of sexual reproduction'.

Keywords: anisogamy; gamete; isogamy; sex roles; sexual reproduction; sexual selection.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Eukaryota / physiology*
  • Germ Cells / physiology*
  • Reproduction
  • Sex*