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Infect Genet Evol. 2008 May;8(3):267-85. doi: 10.1016/j.meegid.2008.01.002. Epub 2008 Jan 16.

Adaptive value of sex in microbial pathogens.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson 85721, USA.


Explaining the adaptive value of sex is one of the great outstanding problems in biology. The challenge comes from the difficulty in identifying the benefits provided by sex, which must outweigh the substantial costs of sex. Here, we consider the adaptive value of sex in viruses, bacteria and fungi, and particularly the information available on the adaptive role of sex in pathogenic microorganisms. Our general theme is that the varied aspects of sex in pathogens illustrate the varied issues surrounding the evolution of sex generally. These include, the benefits of sex (in the short- and long-term), as well as the costs of sex (both to the host and to the pathogen). For the benefits of sex (that is, its adaptive value), we consider three hypotheses: (i) sex provides for effective and efficient recombinational repair of DNA damages, (ii) sex provides DNA for food, and (iii) sex produces variation and reduces genetic associations among alleles under selection. Although the evolution of sex in microbial pathogens illustrates these general issues, our paper is not a general review of theories for the evolution of sex in all organisms. Rather, we focus on the adaptive value of sex in microbial pathogens and conclude that in terms of short-term benefits, the DNA repair hypothesis has the most support and is the most generally applicable hypothesis in this group. In particular, recombinational repair of DNA damages may substantially benefit pathogens when challenged by the oxidative defenses of the host. However, in the long-term, sex may help get rid of mutations, increase the rate of adaptation of the population, and, in pathogens, may infrequently create new infective strains. An additional general issue about sex illustrated by pathogens is that some of the most interesting consequences of sex are not necessarily the reasons for which sex evolved. For example, antibiotic resistance may be transferred by bacterial sex, but this transfer is probably not the reason sex evolved in bacteria.

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