The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans reproduces primarily by self-fertilization of hermaphrodites, yet males are present at low frequencies in natural populations (androdioecy). The ancestral state of C. elegans was probably gonochorism (separate males and females), as in its relative C. remanei. Males may be maintained in C. elegans because outcrossed individuals escape inbreeding depression. The level of inbreeding depression is, however, expected to be low in such a highly selfing species, compared with an outcrosser like C. remanei. To investigate these issues, we measured life-history traits in the progeny of inbred versus outcrossed C. elegans and C. remanei individuals derived from recently isolated natural populations. In addition, we maintained inbred lines of C. remanei through 13 generations of full-sibling mating. Highly inbred C. remanei showed dramatic reductions in brood size and relative fitness compared to outcrossed individuals, with evidence of both direct genetic and maternal-effect inbreeding depression. This decline in fitness accumulated over time, causing extinction of nearly 90% of inbred lines, with no evidence of purging of deleterious mutations from the remaining lines. In contrast, pure strains of C. elegans performed better than crosses between strains, indicating outbreeding depression. The results are discussed in relation to the evolution of androdioecy and the effect of mating system on the level of inbreeding depression.
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