Maternal inheritance, epigenetics and the evolution of polyandry
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- Zeh, J.A. & Zeh, D.W. Genetica (2008) 134: 45. doi:10.1007/s10709-007-9192-z
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Growing evidence indicates that females actively engage in polyandry either to avoid genetic incompatibility or to bias paternity in favor of genetically superior males. Despite empirical support for the intrinsic male quality hypothesis, the maintenance of variation in male fitness remains a conundrum for traditional “good genes” models of sexual selection. Here, we discuss two mechanisms of non-Mendelian inheritance, maternal inheritance of mitochondria and epigenetic regulation of gene expression, which may explain the persistence of variation in male fitness traits important in post-copulatory sexual selection. The inability of males to transmit mitochondria precludes any direct evolutionary response to selection on mitochondrial mutations that reduce or enhance male fitness. Consequently, mitochondrial-based variation in sperm traits is likely to persist, even in the face of intense sperm competition. Indeed, mitochondrial nucleotide substitutions, deletions and insertions are now known to be a primary cause of low sperm count and poor sperm motility in humans. Paradoxically, in the field of sexual selection, female-limited response to selection has been largely overlooked. Similarly, the contribution of epigenetics (e.g., DNA methylation, histone modifications and non-coding RNAs) to heritable variation in male fitness has received little attention from evolutionary theorists. Unlike DNA sequence based variation, epigenetic variation can be strongly influenced by environmental and stochastic effects experienced during the lifetime of an individual. Remarkably, in some cases, acquired epigenetic changes can be stably transmitted to offspring. A recent study indicates that sperm exhibit particularly high levels of epigenetic variation both within and between individuals. We suggest that such epigenetic variation may have important implications for post-copulatory sexual selection and may account for recent findings linking sperm competitive ability to offspring fitness.