More is Not Better: Brood Size and Population Growth in a Self-Fertilizing Nematode

Jonathan Hodgkin, Thomas M. Barnes


The normal form of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite, which produces from the same germ-line tissue first a limited number of sperm and then a larger number of oocytes. Self-progeny brood sizes are determined by the number of sperm, and most of the oocytes remain unfertilized. Therefore it might seem selectively advantageous to increase the number of sperm, and hence the size of the brood. A mutation that leads to a 50% increase in sperm production allows a comparison of population growth rates between the wild type (mean brood 327 progeny) and the mutant (mean brood 499 progeny). Wild-type populations grow faster, as measured by food consumption, indicating that increased brood size is not advantageous. The mutant appears to be at a disadvantage because the additional spermatogenesis leads to a delay in the onset of oogenesis, and hence to an increase in the minimum generation time. In support of the notion of an optimal brood size, it was found that different natural isolates of this species have self-fertilities similar to that of the standard laboratory strain, in the range 250-350 progeny per worm.

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