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Genetics. 1997 Mar;145(3):815-9.

An experimental test for synergistic epistasis and its application in Chlamydomonas.

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Department of Genetics, Wageningen Agricultural University, The Netherlands.


Theoretically, one of the most general benefits of sex is given by its function in facilitating selection against deleterious mutations. This advantage of sex may be deterministic if deleterious mutations affect the fitness of an individual in a synergistic way, i.e., if mutations increase each others' negative fitness effect. We present a new test for synergistic epistasis that considers the skewness of the log fitness distribution of offspring from a cross. We applied this test to data of the unicellular alga Chlamydomonas moewussii. For this purpose, two crosses were made: one between two strains that are presumed to have accumulated slightly deleterious mutations, the other between two strains without a history of mutation accumulation. Fitness was measured by estimating the two parameters of logistic growth in batch culture, the maximum growth rate (r) and the carrying capacity (K). The finding of a negatively skewed distribution for K in the accumulation cross suggests synergism between mutations affecting the carrying capacity, while the absence of skewness for tau in both crosses is consistent with independent effects of mutations affecting this parameter. The results suggest a possible alternative explanation for the general observation that sex is related to constant environments, where selection on K predominates, while asexual reproduction is found in more variable environments, where selection on r is more important.

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