The ecology of sexual reproduction

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Sexual reproduction is widely regarded as one of the major unexplained phenomena in biology. Nonetheless, while a general answer may remain elusive, considerable progress has been made in the last few decades. Here, we first review the genesis of, and support for, the major ecological hypotheses for biparental sexual reproduction. We then focus on the idea that host–parasite coevolution can favour cross-fertilization over uniparental forms of reproduction, as this hypothesis currently has the most support from natural populations. We also review the results from experimental evolution studies, which tend to show that exposure to novel environments can select for higher levels of sexual reproduction, but that sex decreases in frequency after populations become adapted to the previously novel conditions. In contrast, experimental coevolution studies suggest that host–parasite interactions can lead to the long-term persistence of sex. Taken together, the evidence from natural populations and from laboratory experiments point to antagonistic coevolution as a potent and possibly ubiquitous force of selection favouring cross-fertilization and recombination.

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