Genome expansion in early eukaryotes drove the transition from lateral gene transfer to sex

Colnaghi M, Lane N, Pomiankowski A. eLife 9: e58873 (2020) DOI: 10.7554/eLife.58873


Prokaryotes acquire genes from the environment via lateral gene transfer (LGT). Recombination of environmental DNA can prevent the accumulation of deleterious mutations, but LGT was abandoned by the first eukaryotes in favour of sexual reproduction. Here we develop a theoretical model of a haploid population undergoing LGT which includes two new parameters, genome size and recombination length, neglected by previous theoretical models. The greater complexity of eukaryotes is linked with larger genomes and we demonstrate that the benefit of LGT declines rapidly with genome size. The degeneration of larger genomes can only be resisted by increases in recombination length, to the same order as genome size – as occurs in meiosis. Our results can explain the strong selective pressure towards the evolution of sexual cell fusion and reciprocal recombination during early eukaryotic evolution – the origin of meiotic sex.


Evolutionary Biology, Lateral Gene Transfer, Muller’s Ratchet, Sexual Reproduction, Meiotic Sex, Genome Size, Deleterious Mutation