Can phosphorus limitation contribute to the maintenance of sex? A test of a key assumption

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Abstract

Why sex is so common remains unclear; what is certain is that the predominance of sex despite its profound costs means that it must confer major advantages. Here, we use elemental and nucleic acid assays to evaluate a key element of a novel, integrative hypothesis considering whether sex might be favoured because of differences in body composition between sexuals and asexuals. We found that asexual Potamopyrgus antipodarum, a New Zealand snail, have markedly higher bodily phosphorus and nucleic acid content per unit mass than sexual counterparts. These differences coincide with and are almost certainly linked to the higher ploidy of the asexuals. Our results are the first documented body composition differences between sexual and asexual organisms, and the first detected phenotypic difference between sexual and asexual P. antipodarum, an important natural model system for the study of the maintenance of sex. These findings also verify a central component of our hypothesis that competition between diploid sexuals and polyploid asexuals could be influenced by phosphorus availability.

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