Ever since Darwin first addressed it, sexual reproduction reigns as the ‘queen’ of evolutionary questions. Multiple theories tried to explain how this apparently costly and cumbersome method has become the universal mode of eukaryote reproduction. Most theories stress the adaptive advantages of sex by generating variation, they fail however to explain the ubiquitous persistence of sexual reproduction also where adaptation is not an issue. I argue that the obstacle for comprehending the role of sex stems from the conceptual entanglement of two distinct processes – gamete production by meiosis and gamete fusion by mating (mixis). Meiosis is an ancient, highly rigid and evolutionary conserved process identical and ubiquitous in all eukaryotes. Mating, by contrast, shows tremendous evolutionary variability even in closely related clades and exhibits wonderful ecological adaptability. To appreciate the respective roles of these two processes, which are normally linked and alternating, we require cases where one takes place without the other. Such cases are rather common. The heteromorphic sex chromosomes Y and W, that do not undergo meiotic recombination are an evolutionary test case for demonstrating the role of meiosis. Substantial recent genomic evidence highlights the accelerated rates of change and attrition these chromosomes undergo in comparison to those of recombining autosomes. I thus propose that the most basic role of meiosis is conserving integrity of the genome. A reciprocal case of meiosis without bi-parental mating, is presented by self-fertilization, which is fairly common in flowering plants, as well as most types of apomixis. I argue that deconstructing sex into these two distinct processes – meiosis and mating – will greatly facilitate their analysis and promote our understanding of sexual reproduction.
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© 2017 Cambridge Philosophical Society
- heteromorphic sex chromosomes