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Speciation and Gene Flow between Snails of Opposite Chirality

PLoS Biology
Public Library of Science
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030282
  • Research Article
  • Development
  • Ecology
  • Evolution
  • Genetics/Genomics/Gene Therapy
  • Zoology
  • Molluscs
  • Earth Science
  • Geography
  • Mathematics


Left-right asymmetry in snails is intriguing because individuals of opposite chirality are either unable to mate or can only mate with difficulty, so could be reproductively isolated from each other. We have therefore investigated chiral evolution in the Japanese land snail genus Euhadra to understand whether changes in chirality have promoted speciation. In particular, we aimed to understand the effect of the maternal inheritance of chirality on reproductive isolation and gene flow. We found that the mitochondrial DNA phylogeny of Euhadra is consistent with a single, relatively ancient evolution of sinistral species and suggests either recent “single-gene speciation” or gene flow between chiral morphs that are unable to mate. To clarify the conditions under which new chiral morphs might evolve and whether single-gene speciation can occur, we developed a mathematical model that is relevant to any maternal-effect gene. The model shows that reproductive character displacement can promote the evolution of new chiral morphs, tending to counteract the positive frequency-dependent selection that would otherwise drive the more common chiral morph to fixation. This therefore suggests a general mechanism as to how chiral variation arises in snails. In populations that contain both chiral morphs, two different situations are then possible. In the first, gene flow is substantial between morphs even without interchiral mating, because of the maternal inheritance of chirality. In the second, reproductive isolation is possible but unstable, and will also lead to gene flow if intrachiral matings occasionally produce offspring with the opposite chirality. Together, the results imply that speciation by chiral reversal is only meaningful in the context of a complex biogeographical process, and so must usually involve other factors. In order to understand the roles of reproductive character displacement and gene flow in the chiral evolution of Euhadra, it will be necessary to investigate populations in which both chiral morphs coexist.

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