Evolution of sex and recombination: data


The persistence of sexual reproduction in natural populations remains as one of the major unsolved problems for evolutionary biology. The problem stems from the fact that male-producing, sexual populations are subject to invasion and rapid replacement by clonal females. In fact, a population of one million sexual individuals would be replaced in less than 50 generations by a clone beginning with a single asexual female (explanation). Why, then, is there sex?

A similar paradox exists for recombination. The effect of recombination is to break up the non-random associations between alleles at different loci. Why would this be favored by selection, especially if these non-random associations (linkage disequilibria) were generated by selection in the previous generations? Why break up a good thing?

Over 20 hypotheses have been suggested to explain the evolutionary stability of sexual reproduction, most of which focus on the possible advantages gained by the production of variable offspring. Many of these ideas also apply to recombination. The solution seems far from certain, but most of the effort at present is focused on two general areas: the advantages of sex in clearing deleterious mutations, and the advantages of sex in variable environments. We have been engaged in both empirical and theoretical studies of these hypotheses (link to theoretical studies).

Empirical studies. We work on a New Zealand snail in order to contrast the predictions of the leading theories. The snail is useful for this purpose because sexual and asexual females exist, and often coexist in the same (mixed) population (more about the snail). We have taken a strong-inference approach of forcing the different theories to make different falsifiable predictions, which can be evaluated using biogeographic and/or experimental evidence. Our work to date has been inconsistent with many of the leading hypotheses, but we have been unable to falsify the idea that coevolution with parasites provides an advantage to cross-fertilization in hosts, and vice versa (the Red Queen hypothesis). The basic idea behind the Red Queen hypothesis is that parasites will be under strong selection to infect the most common host genotypes. This kind of frequency-dependent selection will favor rare host genotypes, which should increase in frequency over time, eventually becoming common. The parasite is then under selection to infect these previously rare, but now common host genotypes. This sort of coevolutionary interaction easily leads to oscillations in genotypic frequencies in both the host and the parasite. Under the Red Queen hypothesis, sexual reproduction is selected over asexual reproduction as a mechanism to produce variable progeny, some of which may have relatively rare genotypes, which escape infection.

The gist of the idea can be seen, perhaps, by asking this question: if I have a garden, and my family depends solely on the production of this garden for its survival, should I plant a monoculture of the highest yielding wheat, or should I plant a mixture of genotypes? There are clear advantages of planting the high-yield monoculture, but there is also one huge disadvantage: any disease or herbivore that can successfully infect (or attack) this genotype might potentially wipe it out. Your family suffers catastrophic consequences as a result. There is also one obvious disadvantages of the mixture; lower yield. But low sustained yield may be better in the long run. This is classic bet-hedging. Sex may be a bet-hedging strategy, if the Red Queen is correct: a lower arithmetic mean, but a higher geometric mean over time. In other words, for the family, it may be better to have consistent, but low resources, rather than extremes in boom and bust. The cost of a bust year is too high. Similarly, the cost of a clonal genotype may become too high (extinction) once the clone becomes common.

The Red Queen hypothesis makes several straightforward predictions.

1. Sexual individuals should be favored where the risk of infection is high. We have found support for this expectation both within and between lakes. In general, we find more sexual females in areas where the frequency of infection by trematode worms is high (Lively 1987, 1992; Jokela & Lively 1995a,b; King & Lively 2009) [more about the parasite]. This result suggests that asexual females have displaced sexuals where the risk of infection is low. Recently we have also found that infection levels and male frequency are highly correlated over a 10-15 year period, suggesting that selection pressures exerted by parasites and levels of sexual reproduction in the hosts are stable over time (Lively & Jokela, 2002; King & Lively 2009). [more on Jokela]

2. Host genotypes should oscillate over time. Mark Dybdahl and I followed the dynamics of an all clonal population in L. Poerua, New Zealand over a six-year period. We found that changes in the frequencies of clones were correlated with later changes in the prevalence of infection in the clones, exactly as expected under the Red Queen hypothesis (Dybdahl & Lively 1998). Specifically, clones oscillated over time. When they first became common they were under-infected, but the prevalence of infection increased over time (years), until the clones were over-infected. The clones then decreased in frequency. There are, of course, alternative ways to explain these coupled changes over time, but they require odd assumptions. (Link to Mark Dybdahl's home page.)

3. There should be selection against genotypes that were common in the recent past. We conducted laboratory infection experiments to test the idea that clonal genotypes that were common in the recent past were also more susceptible to infection by local populations of parasites. In our first experiment, we found striking support for the idea: all four of the recently common clones from L. Poerua were more infected than the aggregate of rare clonal genotypes (Dybdahl & Lively 1998).

We then repeated the experiment, with a twist. We wondered if the common clonal genotypes were more infected because they were being tracked by the local parasites (the Red Queen hypothesis), or whether there were more infected because they trade-off parasite resistance with rapid growth and reproduction (the trade-off hypothesis). To contrast the Red Queen with the trade-off hypothesis, we exposed snails from L. Poerua to two sources of parasites: one from L. Poerua (the local source), and one from another lake (L. Ianthe) 70 km to the South (the remote source). Under the Red Queen hypothesis, the common clones should only be more susceptible to the local source of parasites. In contrast, under the trade-off hypothesis, the common clones should be more susceptible to both sources of parasites. The results were consistent with the Red Queen, and inconsistent with the trade-off hypothesis (Lively & Dybdahl 2000). Specifically, the four common clones were all more susceptible than rare clones to the local source of parasites, but no such pattern was observed for the remote source of parasites. The trade-off hypothesis is thus rejected by the data.  The results are, however, consistent with expectation under the Red Queen. 

More recently, we have found direct support for the idea that parasites help to prevent the fixation of common clones in populations that contain mixtures of sexual and asexual snails (Jokela et al 2009).  Specifically, we found that clones that were common in the 1990s had become more susceptible and decreased in frequency in 7-10 years.  In other words, there seems to be strong natural selection against common clones in nature, which could contribute to the persistence of sexual reproduction in mixed populations.  These basic results were backed up by controlled laboratory experiments (Koskella & Lively 2007, 2009)

4. Parasites should become adapted to infecting local populations of their hosts. If parasites are tracking locally common host genotypes, they should also become better (at least periodically) at infecting hosts from their local population than hosts from remote populations. We have found strong support for this idea in three different experiments, involving seven different populations (Lively 1989; Lively & Dybdahl 2000) (show me the data). Recent theoretical work has suggested that this kind of local adaptation does not require that parasites have faster generation times than their hosts (as commonly asserted), and that it can persist in the face of substantial gene flow between parasite populations (Lively 1999).

In addition, we have found (in two separate experiments) a cline in susceptibility of snails along a depth gradient. Specifically, snails from shallow water are more susceptible to infection than snails from deep water (Lively & Jokela 1995; Krist et al. 2000). There are two possible explanations for this striking pattern. One is that shallow-water snails are physiologically compromised for some unknown reason, which renders them more susceptible to infection (the inherent susceptibility hypotheses). Another possibility is that coevolutionary interactions are restricted to shallow water, which makes the shallow-water snails more tractable by the parasites (the coevolution hypothesis). This later idea might work as follows. The final host for these parasites are ducks, which tend to forage along the shallow-water margins of the lake. Thus they are more likely to pick up infections from snails living in shallow water than deep water; and, hence, coevolution might be a stronger force in shallow water (see diagram). Coevolution is required for tracking of common genotypes. Interestingly, we find more sexual females and higher infection levels in shallow water than deep water (Jokela & Lively 1995a), which is consistent with the Red Queen hypothesis for sex.

We recently found a way to directly contrast the predictions of the "coevolution hypothesis" and the "inherent susceptibility hypothesis".  We exposed snails collected from both shallow and deep from each of two lakes (L. Alexandrina and L. Kanieri) to parasites collected from both lakes.  Here the parasites were obtained by collecting the feces of the final hosts (ducks) from around the lake.  The idea here was that the feces would contain eggs produced by the worms from the parasites in that lake, and that these parasites would be naturally sampled by the final host.  We reasoned that, if shallow water snails were inherently more susceptible, then the would be more infected by parasites, independent of the source of the parasites.  We were able to reject this idea.  In contrast, if the parasites are coevolving with the shallow-water snails in their local populations, they should be more infective to the shallow-water snail, but only those collected from the same lake.  This is exactly what we found (King et al. 2009).  In fact, the parasites where vastly more infective to sympatric (same location) snails from the shallow water, but they were no more infective to sympatric snails from the deep water than they were to snails from the other (allopatric) lake.  Thus, sex and coevolution seem to be restricted to the shallow-water margins of the lake, where the final hosts are feeding, which is striking evidence in favor of the Red Queen (King et al. 2009, 2011).  It is also striking evidence in favor of the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution. 

In summary, much of our work points to coevolutionary interactions with parasites as a mechanism selecting for sexual reproduction over parthenogenesis. There, nonetheless, remain important theoretical (link to theory) and empirical difficulties. For example, critical details regarding the genetic basis of infection have yet to be worked out.

It remains to be seen whether the Red Queen will survive future attacks by the data in this and other systems. But, even if she does not survive, the knowledge of host-parasite interactions gained in the attempt will more than repay the effort.

Related links: Research in Jukka Jokela's group in Switzerland. Research in Nico Michiels' group in Muenster, Germany. Research in Dieter Ebert's group in Basel, Switzerland. Research in Stu West's group in Edinburgh, UK.  Research in Aneil Agrawal's group.

 Translation of this page by Johanne Teerink into the Swedish language


Levri, E. P. and C.M. Lively.  1996.  The effects of size, reproductive condition, and parasitism on foraging behaviour in a freshwater snail, Potamopyrgus antipodarum.  Animal Behaviour 51:891-901.


Lively, C.M. and J. Jokela.  1996.  Clinal variation for local adaptation in a host-parasite interaction.  Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B 263:891-897.


Dybdahl, M.F. and C.M. Lively.  1996.  The geography of coevolution: comparative population structures for a snail and its trematode parasite.  Evolution 50: 2264-2275.


Jokela, J., C.M. Lively, M.F. Dybdahl, and J.A. Fox.  1997.  Evidence for a cost of sex in the freshwater snail Potamopyrgus antipodarum.  Ecology 78: 452-460.


Jokela, J., C.M. Lively, J.A. Fox, and M.F. Dybdahl.  1997.  Flat reaction norms and "frozen" phenotypic variation in clonal snails (Potamopyrgus antipodarum).  Evolution 51: 1120-1129.


Johnson, S.G., C.M. Lively, and S.J. Schrag.  1997.  Evolution and ecological correlates of uniparental reproduction in freshwater snails.  Pp. 263-291 in B. Streit, T. Städler and C.M. Lively (eds.), Evolutionary Ecology of Freshwater Organisms: Concepts and Case Studies.  Birkhauser Verlag, Basel.


Dybdahl, M.F. and C.M. Lively.  1998.  Host-parasite coevolution: evidence for rare advantage and time-lagged selection in a natural population.  Evolution 52: 1057-1066.


Howard, R.S. and C.M. Lively.  1998.  The maintenance of sex by parasitism and mutation accumulation under epistatic fitness functions.  Evolution 52:604-610.


Krist, A.C. and C.M. Lively.  1998.  Experimental exposure of juvenile snails (Potamopyrgus antipodarum) to infection by trematode larvae (Microphallus sp.): infectivity, fecundity compensation and growth.  Oecologia 116:575-582.


Lively, C.M., E.J. Lyons, A.D. Peters, and J. Jokela. 1998.  Environmental stress and the maintenance of sex in a freshwater snail.  Evolution 52:1482-1486.


Jokela, J., M.F. Dybdahl, and C.M. Lively.  1999.  Habitat-specific variation in life-history traits, clonal population structure, and parasitism in a freshwater snail (Potamopyrgus antipodarum).  Journal of Evolutionary Biology 12:350-360.


Lively, C.M.  1999.  Migration, virulence, and the geographic mosaic of adaptation by parasites.  American Naturalist 153:S34-S47.


Jokela, J., C. M. Lively, J. Taskinen, and A. D. Peters.  1999.  Effect of starvation on parasite‑induced mortality in a freshwater snail (Potamopyrgus antipodarum).  Oecologia 119:320-325.


Lively, C. M. and M. F. Dybdahl.  2000.  Parasite adaptation to locally common host genotypes.  Nature 405:679-681.


Krist, A. C., C. M. Lively, E. P. Levri, and J. Jokela.  2000.  Spatial variation in susceptibility to infection in a snail-trematode interaction.  Parasitology 121:395-401.


Lively, C. M.  2001.  Trematode infection and the distribution and dynamics of parthenogenetic snail populations.  Parasitology 123:S19-S26.


Lively, C. M. and J. Jokela.  2002.  Temporal and spatial distributions of parasites and sex in a freshwater snail.  Evolutionary Ecology Research 4:219-226.


Jokela, J., C. M. Lively, M. F. Dybdahl, and J. A. Fox.  2003.  Genetic variation in sexual and clonal lineages of a freshwater snail.  Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 79:165-181.


Krist, A.C., J. Jokela, J. Wiehn, and C.M. Lively.  2004.  Host condition affects prevalence of infection.  Journal of Evolutionary Biology 17:33-40.


Osnas, E.E. and C.M. Lively.  2004.  Parasite dose, prevalence of infection and local adaptation in a host-parasite system.  Parasitology 128:223-228.


Lively, C.M., M.F. Dybdahl, J. Jokela, E. Osnas, and L.F. Delph.  2004.  Host sex and local adaptation by parasites in a snail-trematode interaction.  American Naturalist 164:S6-S18.


Neiman, M. and C.M. Lively.  2004.  Pleistocene glaciation is implicated in the phylogeographic structure of a New Zealand freshwater snail, Potamopyrgus antipodarum.  Molecular Ecology 13:3085-3098.


Städler, T., M. Frye, M. Neiman, and C. M. Lively.  2005.  Mitochondrial haplotypes and the New Zealand origin of clonal European Potamopyrgus, an invasive aquatic snail.  Molecular Ecology 14: 2465-2473.


Osnas, E.E. and C.M. Lively.  2005.  Immune response to sympatric and allopatric parasites in a snail-trematode interaction.  Frontiers in Zoology, 2005, 2:8


Neiman, M., J. Jokela, and C.M. Lively.  2005.  Variation in asexual lineage age in Potamopyrgus antipodarum, a New Zealand snail.  Evolution 59: 1945-1952.  (M. Neiman received the R.A. Fisher Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution for this paper.)


Neiman, M., and C.M. Lively.  2005.  Male New Zealand mud snails persist in copulating with asexual and parasitically castrated females.  American Midland Naturalist 154:88-96.


Osnas, E.E. and C.M. Lively.  2006.  Host ploidy, parasitism, and immune defense in a coevolutionary snail-trematode system.  Journal of Evolutionary Biology19: 42-48.


Lively, C.M.  2006.  The ecology of virulence.  Ecology Letters 9: 1089-1095. 


Delph, L.F., C.M. Lively, and C.J. Webb.  2006.  Gynodioecy in native New Zealand Gaultheria (Ericaceae).  New Zealand Journal of Botany 44: 415-420. 


Koskella, B. and C.M. Lively.  2007.  Advice of the Rose: experimental coevolution of a trematode parasite and its snail host.  Evolution 62: 152-159.


Lively, C.M., L.F. Delph, M.F. Dybdahl, and J. Jokela.  2008.  Experimental test for a coevolutionary hotspot in a host-parasite interaction.  Evolutionary Ecology Research 10: 95-103. 


Dybdahl, M.F., J. Jokela, L.F. Delph, B. Koskella, and C.M. Lively.  2008.  Hybrid fitness in a locally adapted parasite.  American Naturalist 172: 772-782. 


Jokela, J., M.F. Dybdahl, and C.M. Lively.  2009.  The maintenance of sex, clonal dynamics, and host-parasite coevolution in a mixed population of sexual and asexual snails.  American Naturalist 174: S43-S53.


King, K.C. and C.M. Lively.  2009.  Geographic variation in sterilizing parasite species and the Red Queen.  Oikos 118: 1416-1420.


Koskella, B. and C. M. Lively.  2009.  Evidence for negative frequency-dependent selection during experimental coevolution of a freshwater snail and a sterilizing trematode.  Evolution 63: 2213-2221. (Britt Koskella received the 2010 R.A. Fisher Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution for this paper.)


King, K. C., L. F. Delph, J. Jokela, and C. M. Lively.  2009.  The geographic mosaic of sex and the Red Queen.  Current Biology 19: 1438–1441.  (see Dispatch by J.N. Thompson in the same issue)


Lively, C. M.  2010.  Parasite virulence, host life history, and the costs and benefits of sex.  Ecology 91: 3-6. 


King, K. C., Jokela, J., and Lively, C. M.  2011.  Trematode parasites infect or die in snail hosts.  Biology Letters 7: 265-268.


Osnas, E. E. and Lively, C. M.  2011.  Using definitive host feces to infect experimental intermediate host populations: waterfowl hosts for New Zealand trematodes.  New Zealand Journal of Zoology 38: 83-90.


King, K. C., Jokela, J., and Lively, C. M.  2011.  Parasites, sex, and clonal diversity in natural snail populations.  Evolution 65: 1474-1481.


King, K. C., Delph, L. F., Jokela, J., and Lively, C. M.  2011.  Coevolutionary hotspots and coldspots for host sex and parasite local adaptation in a snail-trematode interaction.  Oikos 120: 1335-1340.


Koskella, B., Vergara, D., and Lively, C. M.  2011.  Experimental evolution of sexual host populations in response to parasites.  Evolutionary Ecology Research 13:315-322.

Soper, D. M., Delph, L. F., and Lively, C. M.  2013.  Multiple paternity in the freshwater snail, Potamopyrgus antipodarum.  Ecology and Evolution (in press).


*This work has been supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation
NSF LTREB data here (ETH Zurich) or here (IU Bloomington)


C. M. Lively, Dept. of Biology, Indiana University
Go back to Lively's homepage