Ecological and evolutionary opportunities of apomixis: insights from Taraxacum and Chondrilla

Peter J. van Dijk

Abstract

The ecological and evolutionary opportunities of apomixis in the short and the long term are considered, based on two closely related apomictic genera: Taraxacum (dandelion) and Chondrilla (skeleton weed). In both genera apomicts have a wider geographical distribution than sexuals, illustrating the short–term ecological success of apomixis. Allozymes and DNA markers indicate that apomictic populations are highly polyclonal. In Taraxacum, clonal diversity can be generated by rare hybridization between sexuals and apomicts, the latter acting as pollen donors. Less extensive clonal diversity is generated by mutations within clonal lineages. Clonal diversity may be maintained by frequency–dependent selection, caused by biological interactions (e.g. competitors and pathogens). Some clones are geographically widespread and probably represent phenotypically plastic ‘general–purpose genotypes’.

The long–term evolutionary success of apomictic clones may be limited by lack of adaptive potential and the accumulation of deleterious mutations. Although apomictic clones may be considered as ‘evolutionary dead ends’, the genes controlling apomixis can escape from degeneration and extinction via pollen in crosses between sexuals and apomicts. In this way, apomixis genes are transferred to a new genetic background, potentially adaptive and cleansed from linked deleterious mutations. Consequently, apomixis genes can be much older than the clones they are currently contained in. The close phylogenetic relationship between Taraxacum and Chondrilla and the similarity of their apomixis mechanisms suggest that apomixis in these two genera could be of common ancestry.