A fundamental observation across eukaryotic taxa is that mitochondrial genomes have a higher load of deleterious mutations than nuclear genomes. Identifying the evolutionary forces that drive this difference is important to understanding the rates and patterns of sequence evolution, the efficacy of natural selection, the maintenance of sex and recombination and the mechanisms underlying human ageing and many diseases. Recent studies have implicated the presumed asexuality of mitochondrial genomes as responsible for their high mutational load. We review the current body of knowledge on mitochondrial mutation accumulation and recombination, and conclude that asexuality, per se, may not be the primary determinant of the high mutation load in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Very little recombination is required to counter mutation accumulation, and recent evidence suggests that mitochondrial genomes do experience occasional recombination. Instead, a high rate of accumulation of mildly deleterious mutations in mtDNA may result from the small effective population size associated with effectively haploid inheritance. This type of transmission is nearly ubiquitous among mitochondrial genomes. We also describe an experimental framework using variation in mating system between closely related species to disentangle the root causes of mutation accumulation in mitochondrial genomes
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