The ovotestis: an underdeveloped organ of evolution



In animals that have separate sexes (gonochorists), many sperm are produced to fertilise a few eggs. As the male germline undergoes more mitoses, so the accumulated mutation frequency is elevated in sperm compared with ova, and evolution is ‘male-driven’. In contrast, in many hermaphroditic animals, a single organ—the ovotestis—produces both ova and sperm. Since self-renewing cells in the ovotestis may give rise to both cell types throughout life, ova in hermaphrodites could in theory have undergone as many cell divisions as sperm. Here, I consider some possible effects of the ovotestis on evolution. In particular, I hypothesise that the accumulated mutation frequency of nuclear genes in hermaphrodites (including species that change sex) may reach twice that compared with gonochorists. There may be an even greater increase in the mitochondrial mutation frequency. Further developmental studies and the accumulation of comparative data should allow hypothesis testing. If the prediction is correct, then it may provide the most-straightforward explanation for the extraordinary diversity of mitochondrial DNA in some hermaphrodites, especially molluscs. BioEssays 28: 642–650, 2006. © 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.