The loss of sex in clonal plants

Research paper by Christopher G. Eckert

Indexed on: 01 Jul '01Published on: 01 Jul '01Published in: Evolutionary Ecology


Most plants combine sexual and clonal reproduction, and the balance between the two may vary widely between and within species. There are many anecdotal reports of plants that appear to have abandoned sex for clonal reproduction, yet few studies have quantified the degree of sexual variation in clonal plants and fewer still have determined the underlying ecological and/or genetic factors. Recent empirical work has shown that some clonal plants exhibit very wide variation in sexual reproduction that translates into striking variation in genotypic diversity and differentiation of natural populations. Reduced sexual reproduction may be particularly common at the geographical margins of species' ranges. Although seed production and sexual recruitment may often be limited by biotic and abiotic aspects of the environment in marginal populations, genetic factors, including changes in ploidy and sterility mutations, may also play a significant role in causing reduced sexual fertility. Moreover, environmental suppression of sexual recruitment may facilitate the evolution of genetic sterility because natural selection no longer strongly maintains the many traits involved in sex. In addition to the accumulation of ‘neutral’ sterility mutations in highly clonal populations, the evolution of genetic infertility may be facilitated if sterility is associated with enhanced vegetative growth, clonal propagation or survival through either resource reallocation or pleiotropy. However, there are almost no experimental data with which to distinguish among these possibilities. Ultimately, wide variation in genotypic diversity and gene flow associated with the loss of sex may constrain local adaptation and the evolution of the geographical range limit in clonal plants.