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Sexual reproduction and Muller's ratchet in digital organisms

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5 Author(s)

The evolution of sexual reproduction has long been a major problem in biology. According to one theory, sex opposes the fitness-destroying process of Muller's ratchet, which occurs by the stochastic loss of high-fitness genotypes in small populations. Sex opposes the ratchet by allowing genotypes with different deleterious mutations to produce mutation-free offspring. We used the Avida digitalevolution software to investigate sex in relation to Muller's ratchet. Populations of digital organisms mutated, competed, and evolved in a complex environment. Populations were either asexual or sexual; in the latter case, parental genomes recombined to produce offspring. We also varied genomic mutation rates and population sizes, which at extreme values often caused mutational meltdowns and population extinctions. Our results demonstrate that sex is advantageous for population survival under some conditions. However, differences in extinction probabilities were usually small, occurred over a narrow range of mutation rates and population sizes, and the advantage of sex for population survival required many generations. Also, the mean fitness of surviving asexual populations was often greater than in sexual populations. This last result indicates the need for work that compares the statistical distribution of mutational effects and epistatic interactions in asexual and sexual populations.