Sex in the wild: How and why field-based studies contribute to solving the problem of sex

Evolution. 2018 Jun;72(6):1194-1203. doi: 10.1111/evo.13485. Epub 2018 Apr 29.


Why and how sexual reproduction is maintained in natural populations, the so-called "queen of problems," is a key unanswered question in evolutionary biology. Recent efforts to solve the problem of sex have often emphasized results generated from laboratory settings. Here, we use a survey of representative "sex in the wild" literature to review and synthesize the outcomes of empirical studies focused on natural populations. Especially notable results included relatively strong support for mechanisms involving niche differentiation and a near absence of attention to adaptive evolution. Support for a major role of parasites is largely confined to a single study system, and only three systems contribute most of the support for mutation accumulation hypotheses. This evidence for taxon specificity suggests that outcomes of particular studies should not be more broadly extrapolated without extreme caution. We conclude by suggesting steps forward, highlighting tests of niche differentiation mechanisms in both laboratory and nature, and empirical evaluation of adaptive evolution-focused hypotheses in the wild. We also emphasize the value of leveraging the growing body of genomic resources for nonmodel taxa to address whether the clearance of harmful mutations and spread of beneficial variants in natural populations proceeds as expected under various hypotheses for sex.

Keywords: Asexual reproduction; Muller's ratchet; Red Queen; niche differentiation; parthenogenesis; sexual reproduction.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Wild*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Ecosystem*
  • Parasitic Diseases, Animal / transmission
  • Sex Determination Processes*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*