Maternal inheritance of mitochondria: Implications for male fertility?

R. C. Vaught, D. K. Dowling

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


Evolutionary theory predicts maternal inheritance of the mitochondria will lead to the accumulation of mutations in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that impair male fertility, but leave females unaffected. The hypothesis has been referred to as ‘Mother’s Curse’. There are many examples of mtDNA mutations or haplotypes, in humans and other metazoans, associated with decreases in sperm performance, but seemingly few reports of associations involving female reproductive traits; an observation that has been used to support the Mother’s Curse hypothesis. However, it is unclear whether apparent signatures of male bias in mitochondrial genetic effects on fertility reflect an underlying biological bias or a technical bias resulting from a lack of studies to have screened for female effects. Here, we conduct a systematic literature search of studies reporting mitochondrial genetic effects on fertility-related traits in gonochoristic metazoans (animals with two distinct sexes). Studies of female reproductive outcomes were sparse, reflecting a large technical sex bias across the literature. We were only able to make a valid assessment of sex specificity of mitochondrial genetic effects in 30% of cases. However, in most of these cases, the effects were male biased, including examples of male bias associated with mtDNA mutations in humans. These results are therefore consistent with the hypothesis that maternal inheritance has enriched mtDNA sequences with mutations that specifically impair male fertility. However, future research that redresses the technical imbalance in studies conducted per sex will be key to enabling researchers to fully assess the wider implications of the Mother’s Curse hypothesis to male reproductive biology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R159-R168
Number of pages10
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018

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