The benefits of sex

Sexual reproduction helps a fungus to survive winter.
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A rupturing powdery mildew fungus particle, releasing sexually produced spores. Image credit: Laine et al. (CC BY 4.0)

The existence of sex – broadly defined as the coming together of genes from different individuals – is one of the big evolutionary puzzles. Reproduction allows an organism to pass on its genes to future generations. However, while asexual and self-fertilizing individuals transmit all of their genes to their offspring, individuals that reproduce through sex transmit only half of their genome. This is considered the cost of sex.

Many pathogens reproduce through sex, despite often also being able to reproduce asexually or by self-fertilization. Typically a pre-requisite of sex in pathogens is for at least two different strains to infect the same host. Aside from this limitation, little is known about when, where and why pathogens have sex. It has been tricky to study due to the microscopic size of pathogens and the difficulties of identifying different sexes. Moreover, sexual reproduction may be triggered by environmental cues that are difficult to mimic under controlled experimental conditions.

Are there any benefits associated with pathogen sex? To find out, Laine et al. analyzed data collected over the course of four years from thousands of populations of a powdery mildew fungus that infected plants across the Åland islands. This revealed that the opportunities for pathogen sex vary in different locations. Areas where multiple strains of the fungus commonly infect the same plants result in hotspots of new genetic diversity. These mixed populations are also more likely to survive winter. This demonstrates the potential for pathogen sexual reproduction to provide an ecological benefit.

Identifying areas and populations where pathogens have sex can help to identify when and where new strains are most likely to emerge. In the future, studies that use similar methods to Laine et al. could help to predict where infections and diseases are highly likely to arise.