Mutation accumulation in space and the maintenance of sexual reproduction
The maintenance of sexual reproduction remains one of the major puzzles of evolutionary biology, since, all else being equal, an asexual mutant should have a twofold fitness advantage over the sexual wildtype. Most theories suggest that sex helps either to purge deleterious mutations, or to adapt to changing environments. Both mechanisms have their limitations if they act in isolation because they require either high genomic mutation rates or very virulent pathogens, and it is therefore often thought that they must act together to maintain sex. Typically, however, these theories have in common that they are not based on spatial processes. Here, we show that local dispersal and local competition can explain the maintenance of sexual reproduction as a means of purging deleterious mutations. Using a spatially explicit individual-based model, we find that even with reasonably low genomic mutation rates and large total population sizes, asexual clones cannot invade a sexual population. Our results demonstrate how spatial processes affect mutation accumulation such that it can fully erode the twofold benefit of asexuality faster than an asexual clone can take over a sexual population. Thus, the cost of sex is generally overestimated in models that ignore the effects of space on mutation accumulation.