Some multicellular organisms can fuse because mergers potentially provide mutual benefits. However, experimental evolution in the fungus Neurospora crassa has demonstrated that free fusion of mycelia favours cheater lineages, but the mechanism and evolutionary dynamics of dishonest exploitation are unknown. Here we show, paradoxically, that all convergently evolved cheater lineages have similar fusion deficiencies. These mutants are unable to initiate fusion but retain access to wild-type mycelia that fuse with them. This asymmetry reduces cheater-mutant contributions to somatic substrate-bound hyphal networks, but increases representation of their nuclei in the aerial reproductive hyphae. Cheaters only benefit when relatively rare and likely impose genetic load reminiscent of germline senescence. We show that the consequences of somatic fusion can be unequally distributed among fusion partners, with the passive non-fusing partner profiting more. We discuss how our findings may relate to the extensive variation in fusion frequency of fungi found in nature.
|Publication status||Published - 22 Aug 2020|