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Am Nat. 2007 Oct;170(4):542-50. Epub 2007 Aug 15.

A gene's-eye view of symbiont transmission.

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Department of Biology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322, USA.


Symbiotic associations between species are ubiquitous, but we only poorly understand why some symbioses evolve to be mutualistic and others to be parasitic. One prominent hypothesis holds that vertical transmission of symbionts from host parents to their offspring selects for symbionts that are benign or beneficial, while horizontal transmission of symbionts among unrelated hosts selects for symbionts that are less beneficial or outright harmful. A long-standing challenge to this hypothesis, however, is the existence of selfish genetic elements (SGEs). SGEs are passed exclusively from parent to offspring and are able to spread and persist in populations despite reducing the fitness of their hosts. Here I show that SGEs are in fact consistent with the transmission mode hypothesis if one measures transmission from the perspective of host genes instead of host organisms. Both meiotic drive genes and cytoplasmic sex ratio distorters require horizontal transmission, in the form of outbred sex, to spread as parasites. Transmission from parent to offpsring does not constrain SGEs to evolve toward mutualism. The gene-centered perspective I present here is applicable to symbioses at all levels of selection and brings closer together our understandings of cooperation within and between species.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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