Evolutionary dead ends

By Athayde Tonhasca

In 1842, the Darwin family – Charles, his wife Emma, and their two children William and Anne – moved to Down House in the village of Downe, England. The Darwin patriarch, who had travelled the world aboard H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836), would spend the remaining 40 years of his life in quiet isolation at home because of ill-health. Darwin’s condition (whose origin still puzzles scholars) did not slow him down; he embarked on several projects such as monographs on coral reefs and barnacles, and of course overseeing the publication of On the Origin of Species. But Darwin spent most of his time working with plants, which are convenient study subjects for someone with a sedentary life-style. Assisted by gardeners and occasionally his children, Darwin observed and experimented with cabbage, foxglove, hibiscus, orchids, peas, tobacco, violets and many other species in his garden and glasshouse.

Darwin’s glasshouse at Down House, where he conducted many experiments © Tony Corsini, Wikimedia Commons.

Among various major contributions to botany (detailed by Barrett, 2010), Darwin documented the importance of cross-fertilisation (i.e., the transfer of pollen between different plants) for producing healthy offspring. Darwin, ever meticulous about supporting his theories with data, amassed eleven years of continuous observations to highlight the superiority of cross-fertilisation over self-fertilisation, i.e., the transfer of pollen within the same flower or between different flowers on the same plant. 

Methods of transferring pollen from the male anthers to the female stigma © Bartz/Stockmar/Ziyal – Insect Atlas, Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, the great majority of flowering plants predominantly or exclusively outcross – that is, they mate with other individuals – even though they could easily self-fertilise because they are hermaphroditic (their flowers contain both male and female sexual organs). In fact, numerous flowers have mechanisms to avoid self-fertilisation. At best, many self-pollinated species (or ‘selfers’) exhibit mixed mating systems.

The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera). Despite its name, this orchid is mostly a selfer in northern Europe. In the Mediterranean, where this orchid is more abundant, its flowers are pollinated by bees © Bernard Dupont, Wikimedia Commons.

Self-pollination has some advantages: it helps to preserve desirable parental characteristics when a plant is well adapted to its environment. Because selfers do not depend on pollen carriers, they can colonise new habitats with a handful of individuals. Selfers do not have to spend energy on nectar, scents, or substantial quantities of pollen. Self-pollination is useful to farmers, as the genetic identity of a variety or cultivar is easily maintained, without requiring repeated selection of desirable features.

Comparing self-fertilised and crossed seedlings of common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) in his garden prompted Darwin to investigate the effects of cross-fertilisation (Thompson, 2018) © Tony Atkin, Wikimedia Commons.

Self-pollination sounds like a convenient and rational lifestyle, but there are catches, and they are considerable. Selfers’ limited genetic variability makes them vulnerable to environmental changes; a hitherto well-adapted population can be driven to extinction if no individuals are adapted to novel conditions – and changes are inevitable, given enough time. Selfers are also particularly susceptible to inbreeding depression; if the population is homogeneous, genetic defects cannot be weeded out by genetic recombination.

Taking into consideration the long-term hazards of selfing, it seems paradoxical that 10 to 15% of all flowering plants from many taxonomic groups made the transition from outcrossing to full self-fertilisation. Darwin proposed an explanation for this puzzle: cross-pollinated species would turn to self-fertilisation when pollinators or potential mates become scarce. In other words, self-fertilisation assures survival when outcrossing becomes inviable. Darwin’s hypothesis, currently known as the ‘reproductive assurance hypothesis’, continues to be the most accepted explanation for the evolution of self-fertilisation.

Remarkably, researchers were able to quickly induce the transition from cross-pollination to self-pollination in the common large monkey flower (Erythranthe guttata, previously known as Mimulus guttatus) by preventing plants’ contact with pollinators (e.g., Busch et al., 2022). Monkey flowers kept in a glasshouse with no pollinators for five generations increased the production of selfing seeds and showed a reduction in the stigma to anther distance – this feature, known as herkogamy, is one of the indicators of ‘selfing syndrome’: the greater the distance between stigma and anther, the greater the likelihood of the stigma receiving external pollen, thus the lower the chance of self-pollination. After nine generations, plants experienced a significant reduction of genetic variability. Monkey flowers kept in another glasshouse with free access to the common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens), one of the plant’s main pollinators, underwent none of these changes.

L: The common large monkey flower, a native to western North America. Its wide corolla and landing platform are convenient for its main pollinators, bumble bees © Rosser1954, Wikimedia Commons. R: Diagram of a large monkey flower with the upper corolla removed to show the reproductive structures © Bodbyl-Roels & Kelly, 2011.
A common eastern bumble bee; its absence induces selfing in large monkey flowers © U.S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

What do these observations of the monkey flower tell us? For one thing, they are cautionary tales about the risk of losing pollinators. A variety of human disturbances such as agriculture intensification, loss of habitats and diseases have caused a decline of some insect populations, including pollinators. A scarcity of flower visitors may threaten pollination services directly, or induce some plants to adapt quickly and become self-pollinated. Adaptation sounds good, but selfers’ lower genetic diversity and reduced capacity to adjust to environmental vicissitudes make them vulnerable to extinction.

The renowned botanist and geneticist G. Ledyard Stebbins (1906-2000) suggested that selfing is an evolutionary dead end: it is advantageous in the short term but harmful in the long run. And because the transition from outcrossing to selfing is irreversible, according to Dollo’s Law (structures that are lost are unlikely to be regained in the same form in which they existed in their ancestors), self-fertilization ends up in irretrievable tears. And the monkey flower has shown that it all may happen before we notice it.  

Loss of pollinators could be the end of the line for plant species forced into self-pollination © Vaikoovery, Wikimedia Commons.