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When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Sexual

University of Auckland's Matthew Goddard tells New Scientist that "all else being equal, the sexual populations should be outcompeted by asexual populations." That's because an asexual species "should adapt more quickly to a specific niche in the environment" than their counterparts, the magazine adds. "Gene mixing between sexual individuals from different niches will produce maladapted hybrids that will not reliably pass on useful adaptations."

Of course, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that is not how things happen in nature. And now, new research from Goddard and his colleague Jeremy Gray published in Ecology Letters shows that gene flow between niches facilitates local adaptation in the lab, too.

New Scientist explains:

Goddard and Gray created two environments for the yeast in their lab – one containing relatively little carbon at an uncomfortably hot 37 °C, the other limited for nitrogen instead, at a less stressful 30 °C but with an "osmotic stress" caused by an unusual balance of salts. The researchers then placed sexual and asexual populations in both environments.

Goddard and Gray sampled and mixed yeast to allow partial or complete gene mixing between some sexual populations in the two environments. The asexual populations, by definition, could not share genes, and were not mixed.

In their paper, the authors report having found that, generally speaking, sex likely does more harm than good in heterogeneous environments.

"They became simultaneously specialised to both environments — or superior generally," Goddard tells New Scientist. "This is the first empirical demonstration that sex doesn't retard adaptation in a complex environment."