Polyploidy is the multiplication of number of chromosomal sets from 2n to 3n (triploidy), 4n (tetraploidy) and so on. It is quite common in plants, for example many crops like wheat or Brassica forms. It seems to be rarer in animals but still it is present among some amphibian species like Xenopus.

As I know in mammals polyploidy is lethal (I don't mean tissue - limited polyploidy). I understand that triploidy is harmful due to stronger influence of maternal or paternal epigenetic traits that cause abnormal development of placenta, but why there is no tetraploid mammals?

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent question! A topic of active research and without clear consensus, as far as I remember from some talk. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ Great question, plenty to talk about here (give me a few days). $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 1:24
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    $\begingroup$ Looking forward to it, @RichardSmith! $\endgroup$
    – Tim Smith
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ We were told in a lecture that odd polyploidies were usually lethal because the third homologuous chromosome disrupted alignment during meiosis. $\endgroup$
    – Armatus
    Commented May 15, 2012 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ Diploidy is an adaptive regulatory mechanism that is not necessary to multicellular life. Plants and cancer cells are notriously unregulated in ploidy count. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented May 17, 2012 at 16:06

4 Answers 4


Great question, and one about which there has historically been a lot of speculation, and there is currently a lot of misinformation. I will first address the two answers given by other users, which are both incorrect but have been historically suggested by scientists. Then I will try to explain the current understanding (which is not simple or complete). My answer is derived directly from the literature, and in particular from Mable (2004), which in turn is part of the 2004 special issue of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society tackling the subject.

The 'sex' answer...

In 1925 HJ Muller addressed this question in a famous paper, "Why polyploidy is rarer in animals than in plants" (Muller, 1925). Muller briefly described the phenomenon that polyploidy was frequently observed in plants, but rarely in animals. The explanation, he said, was simple (and is approximate to that described in Matthew Piziak's answer):

animals usually have two sexes which are differentiated by means of a process involving the diploid mechanism of segregation and combination whereas plants-at least the higher plants-are usually hermaphroditic.

Muller then elaborated with three explanations of the mechanism:

  1. He assumed that triploidy was usually the intermediate step in chromosome duplication. This would cause problems, because if most animals' sex was determined by the ratios of chromosomes (as in Drosophila), triploidy would lead to sterility.
  2. In the rare cases when a tetraploid was accidentally created, it would have to breed with diploids, and this would result in a (presumably sterile) triploid.
  3. If, by chance, two tetraploids were to arise and mate, they would be at a disadvantage because, he said, they would be randomly allocated sex chromosomes and this would lead to a higher proportion of non-viable offspring, and thus the polyploid line would be outcompeted by the diploid.

Unfortunately, whilst the first two points are valid facts about polyploids, the third point is incorrect. A major flaw with Muller's explanation is that it only applies to animals with chromosomal ratio-based sex determination, which we have since discovered is actually relatively few animals. In 1925 there was comparatively little systematic study of life, so we really didn't know what proportion of plant or animal taxa showed polyploidy. Muller's answer doesn't explain why most animals, e.g. those with Y-dominant sex determination, exhibit relatively little polyploidy. Another line of evidence disproving Muller's answer is that, in fact, polyploidy is very common among dioecious plants (those with separate male and female plants; e.g. Westergaard, 1958), while Muller's theory predicts that prevalence in this group should be as low as in animals.

The 'complexity' answer...

Another answer with some historical clout is the one given by Daniel Standage in his answer, and has been given by various scientists over the years (e.g. Stebbins, 1950). This answer states that animals are more complex than plants, so complex that their molecular machinery is much more finely balanced and is disturbed by having multiple genome copies.

This answer has been soundly rejected (e.g. by Orr, 1990) on the basis of two key facts. Firstly, whilst polyploidy is unusual in animals, it does occur. Various animals with hermaphroditic or parthenogenetic modes of reproduction frequently show polyploidy. There are also examples of Mammalian polyploidy (e.g. Gallardo et al., 2004). In addition, polyploidy can be artificially induced in a wide range of animal species, with no deleterious effects (in fact it often causes something akin to hybrid vigour; Jackson, 1976).

It's also worth noting here that since the 1960s Susumo Ohno (e.g. Ohno et al. 1968; Ohno 1970; Ohno 1999) has been proposing that vertebrate evolution involved multiple whole-genome duplication events (in addition to smaller duplications). There is now significant evidence to support this idea, reviewed in Furlong & Holland (2004). If true, it further highlights that animals being more complex (itself a large, and in my view false, assumption) does not preclude polyploidy.

The modern synthesis...

And so to the present day. As reviewed in Mable (2004), it is now thought that:

  • Polyploidy is an important evolutionary mechanism which was and is probably responsible for a great deal of biological diversity.
  • Polyploidy arises easily in both animals and plants, but reproductive strategies might prevent it from propagating in certain circumstances, rather than any reduction in fitness resulting from the genome duplication.
  • Polyploidy may be more prevalent in animals than previously expected, and the imbalance in data arises from the fact that cytogenetics (i.e. chromosome counting) of large populations of wild specimens is a very common practise in botany, and very uncommon in zoology.

In addition, there are now several new suspected factors involved in ploidy which are currently being investigated:

  • Polyploidy is more common in species from high latitudes (temperate climates) and high altitudes (Soltis & Soltis, 1999). Polyploidy frequently occurs by the production of unreduced gametes (through meiotic non-disjunction), and it has been shown that unreduced gametes are produced with higher frequency in response to environmental fluctuations. This predicts that polyploidy should be more likely to occur in the first place in fluctuating environments (which are more common at higher latitudes and altitudes).
  • Triploid individuals, the most likely initial result of a genome duplication event, in animals and plants often die before reaching sexual maturity, or have low fertility. However, if triploid individuals do reproduce, there is a chance of even-ploid (fertile) individuals resulting. This probability is increased if the species produces large numbers of both male and female gametes, or has some mechanism of bypassing the triploid individual stage. This may largely explain why many species with 'alternative' sexual modes (apomictic, automictic, unisexual, or gynogenetic) show polyploidy, as they can keep replicating tetraploids, thus increasing the chance that eventually a sexual encounter with another tetraploid will create a new polyploid line. In this way, non-sexual species may be a crucial evolutionary intermediate in generating sexual polyploid species. Species with external fertilisation are more likely to establish polyploid lines - a greater proportion of gametes are involved in fertilisation events and therefore two tetraploid gametes are more likely to meet.
  • Finally, polyploidy is more likely to occur in species with assortative mixing. That is, when a tetraploid gamete is formed, if the genome duplication somehow affects the individual so as to make it more likely that it will be fertilised by another tetraploid, then it is more likely that a polyploid line will be established. Thus it may be partly down to evolutionary chance as to how easily a species' reproductive traits are affected. For example in plants, tetraploids often have larger flowers or other organs, and thus are preferentially attractive to pollinators. In frogs, genome duplication leads to changes in the vocal apparatus which can lead to immediate reproductive isolation of polyploids.


  • Furlong, R.F. & Holland, P.W.H. (2004) Polyploidy in vertebrate ancestry: Ohno and beyond. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 82 (4), 425–430.
  • Gallardo, M.H., Kausel, G., Jiménez, A., Bacquet, C., González, C., Figueroa, J., Köhler, N. & Ojeda, R. (2004) Whole-genome duplications in South American desert rodents (Octodontidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 82 (4), 443–451.
  • Jackson, R.C. (1976) Evolution and Systematic Significance of Polyploidy. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 7209–234.
  • Mable, B.K. (2004) ‘Why polyploidy is rarer in animals than in plants’: myths and mechanisms. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 82 (4), 453–466.
  • Muller, H.J. (1925) Why Polyploidy is Rarer in Animals Than in Plants. The American Naturalist. 59 (663), 346–353.
  • Ohno, S. (1970) Evolution by gene duplication.
  • Ohno, S. (1999) Gene duplication and the uniqueness of vertebrate genomes circa 1970–1999. Seminars in Cell & Developmental Biology. 10 (5), 517–522.
  • Ohno, S., Wolf, U. & Atkin, N.B. (1968) EVOLUTION FROM FISH TO MAMMALS BY GENE DUPLICATION. Hereditas. 59 (1), 169–187.
  • Orr, H.A. (1990) ‘Why Polyploidy is Rarer in Animals Than in Plants’ Revisited. The American Naturalist. 136 (6), 759–770.
  • Soltis, D.E. & Soltis, P.S. (1999) Polyploidy: recurrent formation and genome evolution. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 14 (9), 348–352.
  • Stebbins, C.L. (1950) Variation and evolution in plants. Westergaard, M. (1958) The Mechanism of Sex Determination in Dioecious Flowering Plants. In: Advances in Genetics. Academic Press. pp. 217–281.

(I'll come back and add links to the references later)

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    $\begingroup$ It's a really great answer. Just a few remarks: 1) In next to last point you probably mean diploid gamets (gamets from tetraploid individual) 2) In frogs, if polyploidy changes male vocal aparatus, then it also have to change polyploid female preferences. Otherwise polyploid males would be avoided also by females of the same ploidy and it would be even more difficult to establish polyploid population. $\endgroup$
    – Marta Cz-C
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ You're absolutely right on both points Marta. Regarding the second point, the key thing is that polyploidy affecting the males' calls creates a situation where it is possible for a female to distinguish a polyploid male from a non-polyploid, which if there was a non-trivial rate of polyploidy arising would then lead to selection for polyploid females which preferred the polyploid males. Without a change in traits for polyploids there is no selection. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ This answer was worth the wait. Excellent and thorough! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ Beautiful answer.. I actually had the same question and referred Mable. Only if I could stumble upon this earlier! +1 $\endgroup$
    – Polisetty
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 12:21

Plants have a simpler anatomical structure than mammals (is anatomical the right word, or would physiological be more appropriate?). Mammals on average don't have more genes than plants, so my understanding is that this additional complexity is the result of finer and more complex regulatory mechanisms.

When you remove or duplicate an individual gene in an organism, that organism must compensate somehow. The more complex the regulatory system, more likely that even small perturbations will cause severe defects or even lethality.

Extend this to the scale of a whole genome, and it shouldn't be surprising that polyploidy is lethal for a lot of organisms. It find it extremely fascinating that it's not lethal for some organisms, but it makes sense that organisms with simpler regulatory mechanisms would be more successful handling a genome duplication event through gene subfunctionalization, neofunctionalization, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ This was one of the first ideas suggested when it was historically discovered that many more plants than animals exhibit polyploidy. However, it is not the explanation. I will expand on why it is incorrect when I post my own answer later. As a side point: whilst plants could be argued to be anatomically more simple than animals, they are not physiologically more simple. Animals have different constraints, environmental challenges and adaptations than plants, but ultimately are not more complex. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for answer. I also thought about it. But it is hard to measure how complex is an organism and among verebrate polyploidy also occure. Maybe amphibians are not so smart as we are, but are they really so much simpler? $\endgroup$
    – Marta Cz-C
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ @RichardSmith If there is any time to draw up your answer, it is now. I am interested in what you have to say! $\endgroup$ Commented May 18, 2012 at 4:35
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielStandage My finals finish on Wednesday, after which I will be back here to answer all the questions on my to-do list, starting with this one :) $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2012 at 12:13

In animals, polyploidy is not tolerated and very few polyploid species are known to exist. Those that do exist are usually asexual, parthenogenetic, or hermaphroditic. Most of the problems resulting from polyploidy occur during synapsis of homologues during prophase I.

As plants do not have a chromosomal mechanism for sex determination, synapsis and subsequent disjunction is not as great a problem. In fact, most plants are monoecious.

These paragraphs are taken from these lecture notes from an Emporia State University genetics course.

Supporting information looks to be present in Why Polyploidy is Rarer in Animals Than in Plants (H. J. Muller, The American Naturalist, 1925), but I didn't get a chance to access the article.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer. The issue of reproduction of polyploid species is also very interesting, but my question was rather why some organism survive polyploidy (even if they cannot reproduce), while for other it means death at early stage of development. The last article you've quoted may be quite out of date, but I don't have an access to it either. (that's pity, becouse I'm curious what people thought about this issue at the beginning of XX century). $\endgroup$
    – Marta Cz-C
    Commented May 16, 2012 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @MartaCz-C: Do you mean, at the beginning of the X diploid century? $\endgroup$ Commented May 18, 2012 at 22:43

My point in stating what is below is to emphasize even when polyploidy is present in closely related species there is a question of why an organism can survive one ploidy event but not another and why tolerance of polyploidy varies among similar organisms?

Several species of deciduous azaleas are tetraploid. Closely related diploid deciduous azaleas are more than happy to accept pollen and produce seedpods. We have attempted such crosses many times and they almost always success in terms of seedpod development.

Tetraploid deciduous azaleas on the other hand are very reluctant to accept pollen from diploid deciduous azaleas. We have attempted such crosses nearly 100 times without success.

However producing seedpods and producing viable seeds are of course different. Some crosses of diploid X tetraploid produce 1 or only a few viable seedlings (We have never gotten none to date.) while others produce viable seedlings measured in dozens while still others produce hundreds of viable seedlings. In some instances, the same diploid parent will produce many more viable seedlings from one tetraploid parent than from another.

To date all seedlings of diploid X tetraploid have measured as triploid using flow cytometry. Most seedlings appear to be sterile but some are fertile and occasionally some are very fertile to the point of setting open pollinated seed.

When these triploid seedling are successfully crossed with tetraploids, we get what appears based on flow cytometry to be triploids, aneuploids between triploid and tetraploid, tetraploids, and pentaploids. The few pentaploids old enough to flower appear to set seedpods when crossed with tetraploids.

In elepidote Rhododendron which has only diploid species, hybridizers over the last 150 years have had very limited success in producing polyploid elepidote Rhododendrons (less than 100 named hybrids) despite amazing success at creating and naming complex interspecies crosses (more than 20,000).

In other words, the pathway from diploid to polyploid can be a struggle for an organism even when polyploidy is present in closely related organisms.

Yet even the human lineage underwent polyploidy events. Humans were not simply created having 46 chromosomes. There is nothing to say that an organism or a set of organisms unable to tolerate almost all polyploid events are therefore unable to survive all polyploid events.


Rules of Engagement: Have Pollen—Will Travel by John Perkins · Sally Perkins in Azalean 2010

Ploidy level estimations in deciduous and elepidote hybrids of Rhododendron by José Cerca de Oliveira, Mariana Castro, Francisco J. do Nascimento, Sílvia Castro, John Perkins,Sally Perkins, João Loureiro in Jornadas Portuguesas de Genética, Coimbra, Portugal; 05/2011

Weighing in: Discovering the ploidy of hybrid elepidote rhododendrons by Sally Perkins, John Perkins, José Monteiro de Oliveira, Mariana Castro, Sílvia Castro, João Loureiro in Rhododendrons, Camellias and Magnolias, Royal Horticultural Society, Editors: Simon Maughan, pp.34-48 2012


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