Despite wide-ranging implications of selfish mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) elements for human disease and topics in evolutionary biology (e.g., speciation), the forces controlling their formation, age-related accumulation, and offspring transmission remain largely unknown. Selfish mtDNA poses a significant challenge to genome integrity, mitochondrial function, and organismal fitness. For instance, numerous human diseases are associated with mtDNA mutations; however, few genetic systems can simultaneously represent pathogenic mitochondrial genome evolution and inheritance. The nematode Caenorhabditis briggsae is one such system. Natural C. briggsae isolates harbor varying levels of a large-scale deletion affecting the mitochondrial nduo-5 gene, termed nad5Δ. A subset of these isolates contains putative compensatory mutations that may reduce the risk of deletion formation. We studied the dynamics of nad5Δ heteroplasmy levels during animal development and transmission from mothers to offspring in genetically diverse C. briggsae natural isolates. Results support previous work demonstrating that nad5Δ is a selfish element and that heteroplasmy levels of this deletion can be quite plastic, exhibiting high degrees of inter-family variability and divergence between generations. The latter is consistent with a mitochondrial bottleneck effect, and contrasts with previous findings from a laboratory-derived model uaDf5 mtDNA deletion in C. elegans. However, we also found evidence for among-isolate differences in the ability to limit nad5Δ accumulation, the pattern of which suggested that forces other than the compensatory mutations are important in protecting individuals and populations from rampant mtDNA deletion expansion over short time scales.
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