It is believed that originally, species reproduced by asexual reproduction. This is where species are able to reproduce through mitosis individually, this means the descendants of the individuals are essentially clones, the only way which variation can occur is through mutations. Asexual reproduction allows for rapid population growth in stable environments (where adaptation through natural selection is not required). Examples of asexual reproducers are many bacteria, plants and fungi.
Sexual reproduction is the converse of this, requiring the gametes of two individuals to fuse together to form the next generation. Because of this, the life cycle of sexually reproductive individuals is typically divided into two phases; a diploid (2n) and haploid phase (n). Gamete production occurs by meiosis (which may introduce variation) where 2n -> n, the fusion of gametes (which also introduces variation) is the reverse, n -> 2n. With sexual reproduction a lot of variation arises each generation, which allows adaptation in changing environments.
The ‘Cost of Sex’
The cost of sex, also known as the cost of producing males is an equation that shows how parthenogenetic individuals (those who produce fertile female eggs asexually) are essentially twice as effective when compared to sexual reproduction. This means asexual individuals are able to quickly reproduce and populate an area, however they lack the variation introduced by sexual reproduction.
Imagine a population that consists of N sexual males and N sexual females (The total population would therefore be 2N). Each sexual female (N) can produce an amount of eggs, K. These eggs have a probability of surviving, S. So in the next generation there will be KSN sexual individuals, this is the number of females, the eggs they produce and the survival of those eggs.
Assuming that within this species there are also parthenogenetic individuals that produce asexually, n, which again produce K eggs with a survivability of S, the next generation of parthenogenetic individuals would consist of KSn. That is the total number of parthenogenetic individuals (n), the eggs they produce (K) and the survival rate of those eggs (S).
To determine the increase in proportion due to parthenogenetic individuals, we must find their proportion within the initial generation and the second generation. We will then be able to see how parthenogenesis compares.
The proportion of parthenogenetic individuals in the first generation was n/(n + 2N), this is the number of parthenogenetic individual divided by the total number of individuals (2N being the number if sexual males and females.)
In the next generation the ration will depend on the number of surviving eggs, which will be:
KSn/(KSn + KSN), this is the number of surviving parthenogenetic eggs, divided by the total number of eggs laid. Because the KS term appears on both the top and bottom, it can be cancelled out to give: n/(n + N)
If we assume that the parthenogenetic form arises as a mutant, we can say that n is very low when compared N. This is because the mutant(s) numbers are so small when compared to the rest of the species population. Because of this relationship we can assume that n + N is so close to the value of N alone, that n + N is roughly equal to N. We can say the same about n + 2N, this is roughly equal to 2N.
By making the above assumptions, the initial proportion on parthenogenetic individuals in the first generation is: n/2N
With the proportion increasing to: n/N in the second generation.
This shows that the proportion of parthenogenetic individuals doubles in one generation, meaning that asexual reproduction has a two-fold advantage over sexual reproduction – this is known as the ‘Cost of Sex’ or the ‘Cost of Producing Males’.
Gamete Production and Parental Investment
Species may exhibit variation in the type of gamete that they produce; for example humans produce two very different types of gametes – the egg which is slow and large compared to sperm which are small, motive and numerous.
Isogamy is believed to have been the first step along the path of sexual reproduction. Isogamy is when both sexes produce similar gametes, making them undistinguishable from one another. Organisms such as algae, fungi and yeast form isogametes.
In contrast to isogamy is anisogamy; this is the production of dissimilar gametes that may differ in size or motility. Both gametes may be motile or neither, however they will always be distinguishable from one another. The anisogamy observed in humans is known as oogamy.
Oogamy is a specialised form of anisogamy, where the female produces significantly larger egg cells, compared to the smaller, more motile spermatozoa. Both gametes are highly specialised towards their role, with the egg containing all the materials required for zygote growth and the sperm containing little more than the male genetic contribution. This does however allow for the sperm to be highly motile and travel the necessary distances required to fertilise the barely motile egg.
Because of this, we often see greater amounts of parental investment from the females of species as they put in nearly all the energy of producing the offspring. Parental investment is defined as, any investment by the parent to an individual offspring that increases the offspring’s chance of surviving (and reproductive success) at the cost of the parent’s ability to invest in other offspring.
Robert Trivers’ theory of parental investment predicts that the sex making the largest investment in lactation, nurturing and protecting offspring will be more discriminating in mating and that the sex that invests less in offspring will compete for access to the higher investing sex. Sex differences in parental effort are important in determining the strength of sexual selection. This is why in many species, the female will be particularly choosy when looking for a male to mate with, as she will be examining the males to see which one will provide the best genes to ensure her offspring’s reproductive success is maximised.