The evolutionary ecology of clonally propagated domesticated plants


  • Doyle McKey,

    1. Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, UMR 5175, 1919 route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier cedex 5, France
    2. Université Montpellier II, Place Eugène Bataillon, 34095 Montpellier, France
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Marianne Elias,

    1. NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park Campus, Ascot SL5 7PY, UK
    2. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, UMR 7205, 16 Rue Buffon, CP39, 75005 Paris, France
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Benoît Pujol,

    1. Laboratoire Evolution et Diversité Biologique, UMR 5174, Bâtiment 4R3, Université Paul Sabatier, 31062 Toulouse cedex 9, France
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Anne Duputié

    1. Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, UMR 5175, 1919 route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier cedex 5, France
    2. Section of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station C0930 Austin, TX 78712 USA
    Search for more papers by this author

Author for correspondence:
Doyle McKey
Tel: +33 4 67 61 32 32
Email: or



I.Domesticated plants as model systems in evolutionary biology: bringing clonally propagated crops into the fold319
II.Advantages and disadvantages of clonal propagation319
III.Evolution in clonal populations: somatic mutations and epigenetic traits as sources of heritable variation321
IV.Evolutionary dynamics of sex in clonally propagated crop plants323
V.Mixed clonal-sexual systems: how do they work?325
VI.Domestication syndromes in clonally propagated crops327
VII.The future of clonally propagated domesticated plants328


While seed-propagated crops have contributed many evolutionary insights, evolutionary biologists have often neglected clonally propagated crops. We argue that widespread notions about their evolution under domestication are oversimplified, and that they offer rich material for evolutionary studies. The diversity of their wild ancestors, the diverse ecologies of the crop populations themselves, and the intricate mix of selection pressures, acting not only on the parts harvested but also on the parts used by humans to make clonal propagules, result in complex and diverse evolutionary trajectories under domestication. We examine why farmers propagate some plants clonally, and discuss the evolutionary dynamics of sexual reproduction in clonal crops. We explore how their mixed clonal/sexual reproductive systems function, based on the sole example studied in detail, cassava (Manihot esculenta). Biotechnology is now expanding the number of clonal crops, continuing the 10 000-yr-old trend to increase crop yields by propagating elite genotypes. In an era of rapid global change, it is more important than ever to understand how the adaptive potential of clonal crops can be maintained. A key component of strategies for preserving this adaptive potential is the maintenance of mixed clonal/sexual systems, which can be achieved by encouraging and valuing farmer knowledge about the sexual reproductive biology of their clonal crops.