In asexual populations, mutators may be expected to hitchhike with associated beneficial mutations. In sexual populations, recombination is predicted to erode such associations, inhibiting mutator hitchhiking. To investigate the effect of recombination on mutators experimentally, we compared the frequency dynamics of a mutator allele (msh2Δ) in sexual and asexual populations of Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Mutator strains increased in frequency at the expense of wild-type strains in all asexual diploid populations, with some approaching fixation in 150 generations of propagation. Over the same period of time, mutators declined toward loss in all corresponding sexual diploid populations as well as in haploid populations propagated asexually.
We report the first experimental investigation of mutator dynamics in sexual populations. We show that a strong mutator quickly declines in sexual populations while hitchhiking to high frequency in asexual diploid populations, as predicted by theory. We also show that the msh2Δ mutator has a high and immediate realized cost that is alone sufficient to explain its decline in sexual populations. We postulate that this cost is indirect; namely, that it is due to a very high rate of recessive lethal or strongly deleterious mutation. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that msh2Δ also has unknown directly deleterious effects on fitness, and that these effects may differ between haploid asexual and sexual populations. Despite these reservations, our results prompt us to speculate that the short-term cost of highly deleterious recessive mutations can be as important as recombination in preventing mutator hitchhiking in sexual populations.