Understanding the mode of origin of asexuality is central to ongoing debates concerning the evolution and maintenance of sexual reproduction in eukaryotes. This is because it has profound consequences for patterns of genetic diversity and ecological adaptability of asexual lineages, hence on the outcome of competition with sexual relatives both in short and longer terms. Among the possible routes to asexuality, hybridization is a very common mechanism in animals and plants. Aphids present frequent transitions from their ancestral reproductive mode (cyclical parthenogenesis) to permanent asexuality, but the mode of origin of asexual lineages is generally not known because it has never been thoroughly investigated with appropriate molecular tools. Rhopalosiphum padi is an aphid species with coexisting sexual (cyclically parthenogenetic) and asexual (obligately parthenogenetic) lineages that are genetically distinct. Previous studies have shown that asexual lineages of R. padi are heterozygous at most nuclear loci, suggesting either that they have undergone long-term asexuality (under which heterozygosity tends to increase) or that they have hybrid origins. To discriminate between these alternatives, we conducted an extensive molecular survey combining the sequence analysis of alleles of two nuclear DNA markers and mitochondrial DNA haplotypes in sexual and asexual lineages of R. padi. Both nuclear and cytoplasmic markers clearly showed that many asexual lineages have hybrid origins, the first such demonstration in aphids. Our results also indicated that asexuals result from multiple events of hybridization between R. padi and an unknown sibling species, and are of recent origin (contradicting previous estimates that asexual R. padi lineages were of moderate longevity). This study constitutes another example that putatively ancient asexual lineages are actually of much more recent origin than previously thought. It also presents a robust approach for testing whether hybrid origin of asexuality is also a common phenomenon in aphids.
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Vol. 57 • No. 6