An organism’s choice to reproduce with or without sex has long puzzled evolutionary biologists. Apomixis, a natural form of reproduction in plants whereby seeds are produced asexually, has evolved repeatedly from sexual ancestors in many taxa. Apomixis is of interest on a number of levels, ranging from population genetics to evolution, but also from an applied perspective, as it represents a disruptive technology which could significantly change agricultural practices (e.g. fixing heterosis in hybrid crops). The switch from sex to apomixis is hypothesized to result from deregulation of developmental pathways leading to sexual seed development, and the trigger for deregulation involves the global genomic effects of hybridization and polyploidy.
We study apomixis in wild plant populations, and use evolutionary theory to guide our experimental approaches. High-throughput methods are employed to understand population-level phenotypic (seed production) and genetic (polyploidy, genetic structure) variability. These data are then used to design targeted experiments, whereby candidate genes for apomixis are identified using tissue-specific “omics” methods in particular genotypes. These candidates are then used (1) in transformation experiments to attempt apomixis induction in sexual plants, and (2) in population-level studies to understand the origin and evolution of apomixis with respect to sexuality in natural populations.