The use of 'selfish' gene drive systems to suppress or even extinguish populations has been proposed on theoretical grounds for almost half a century. Creating these genes has recently become possible with CRISPR technology. One seemingly feasible approach, originally proposed by Burt, is to create a homing endonuclease gene (HEG) that inserts into an essential gene, enabling heterozygote viability but causing homozygote lethality. With 100% segregation distortion in gametes, such genes can cause profound population suppression if resistance does not evolve. Here, population genetic models are used to consider the evolution of inbreeding (specifically selfing) as a possible response to a recessively lethal HEG with complete segregation distortion. Numerical analyses indicate a rich set of outcomes, but selfing often evolves in response to the HEG, with a corresponding partial restoration of mean fitness. Whether selfing does indeed evolve and its effect in restoring fitness depends heavily on the magnitude of inbreeding depression. Overall, these results point toward an underappreciated evolutionary response to block the harmful effects of a selfish gene. They raise the possibility that extreme population suppression may be resisted by mechanisms that are independent of the molecular basis of gene drive. At the same time, the evolution of inbreeding is not assured even if the genetic basis for inbreeding is present. As the models here strictly apply to hermaphrodites (plants), an important next step is to consider inbreeding in populations with separate sexes.
Keywords: evolution; fitness; genome engineering; population genetics; selfish gene.
© The Author(s) 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Foundation for Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health.