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Population genetic structure of parthenogenetic flatworm populations with occasional sex


Beatriz Sánchez Navarro, Institute of Evolution and Ecology, Animal Evolutionary Ecology, Faculty of Science, University of Tuebingen, Auf der Morgenstelle 28, D-72076 Tuebingen, Germany. E-mail:


1. Sexual populations are expected to perform better in fluctuating environments than asexuals because recombination provides the potential to adapt to changing environments due to increased genetic variation. Nevertheless, some asexual species show comparably high levels of genotypic diversity. Such diversity might be achieved through gene flow between coexisting sexual and asexual populations or through sexual events within asexual populations.

2. Evidence for occasional sex in the flatworm Schmidtea polychroa was previously found at one specific site that is inhabited by parthenogenetic forms. There, varying rates of sex between subpopulations, reaching up to 12%, were observed. Past recurrent sexual processes left a significant genetic signature in the population genetic structure of this population. In the present study, we examined the population genetic structure of six independent metapopulations (lakes) of the freshwater planarian flatworm S. polychroa, to confirm the presence of occasional sex and that its population genetic consequences can be generalised.

3. Using microsatellites, we found varying rates of occasional sex among subpopulations. Metapopulations showed medium to high levels of genotypic diversity that correlated with the rate of sex.

4. We conclude that occasional sex has considerable consequences for population genetic structure of parthenogenetic species and promotes diversity that might allow response to the particular type of selection that is usually predicted to favour sexual reproduction. This reproductive strategy provides genetic characteristics required for selection to act on, and might, therefore, explain the success of this parthenogenetic species.