Adaptation to temporally fluctuating environments by the evolution of maternal effects

Adaptation to temporally fluctuating environments by the evolution of maternal effects

Snigdhadip Dey, Steve Proulx, Henrique Teotonio

Most organisms live in ever-challenging temporally fluctuating environments. Theory suggests that the evolution of anticipatory (or deterministic) maternal effects underlies adaptation to environments that regularly fluctuate every other generation because of selection for increased offspring performance. Evolution of maternal bet-hedging reproductive strategies that randomize offspring phenotypes is in turn expected to underlie adaptation to irregularly fluctuating environments. Although maternal effects are ubiquitous their adaptive significance is unknown since they can easily evolve as a correlated response to selection for increased maternal performance. Using the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, we show the experimental evolution of maternal provisioning of offspring with glycogen, in populations facing a novel anoxia hatching environment every other generation. As expected with the evolution of deterministic maternal effects, improved embryo hatching survival under anoxia evolved at the expense of fecundity and glycogen provisioning when mothers experienced anoxia early in life. Unexpectedly, populations facing an irregularly fluctuating anoxia hatching environment failed to evolve maternal bet-hedging reproductive strategies. Instead, adaptation in these populations should have occurred through the evolution of balancing trade-offs over multiple generations, since they evolved reduced fitness over successive generations in anoxia but did not go extinct during experimental evolution. Mathematical modelling confirms our conclusion that adaptation to a wide range of patterns of environmental fluctuations hinges on the existence of deterministic maternal effects, and that they are generally much more likely to contribute to adaptation than maternal bet-hedging reproductive strategies.


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