Background: Biased sex ratios are common among dioecious plant species despite the theoretical prediction of selective advantage of even sex ratios. Albeit the high prevalence of deviations from even sex ratios, the genetic causes to sex biases are rarely known outside of a few model species. Here we present a mechanism underlying the female biased sex ratio in the dioecious willow species Salix viminalis.
Results: We compared the segregation pattern of genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism markers in two contrasting bi-parental pedigree populations, the S3 with even sex ratio and the S5 with a female biased sex ratio. With the segregation analysis and comparison between the two populations, we were able to demonstrate that sex determination and sex ratio distortion are controlled by different genetic mechanisms. We furthermore located the sex ratio distorter locus to a Z/W-gametologous region on chromosome 15, which was in close linkage with the sex determination locus. Interestingly, all males in the population with biased sex ratio have in this sex ratio distorter locus the same genotype, meaning that males with the Z1/Z3-genotype were missing from the population, thereby creating the 2:1 female biased sex ratio.
Conclusions: We attribute the absence of Z1/Z3 males to an allelic incompatibility between maternally and paternally inherited alleles in this sex ratio distorter locus. Due to the tight linkage with the sex determination locus only male individuals are purged from the population at an early age, presumably before or during seed development. We showed that such allelic incompatibility could be stably maintained over evolutionary times through a system of overdominant or pseudooverdominant alleles. Thus, it is possible that the same mechanism generates the female biased sex ratio in natural willow populations.
Keywords: Dioecy; Genotyping-by-sequencing; Sex determination; Sex ratio; Willows.