Evolving mutation rate advances the invasion speed of a sexual species.
Background: Many species are shifting their ranges in response to global climate change. Range expansions are known to have profound effects on the genetic composition of populations. The evolution of dispersal during range expansion increases invasion speed, provided that a species can adapt sufficiently fast to novel local conditions. Genetic diversity at the expanding range border is however depleted due to iterated founder effects. The surprising ability of colonizing species to adapt to novel conditions while being subjected to genetic bottlenecks is termed 'the genetic paradox of invasive species'. Mutational processes have been argued to provide an explanation for this paradox. Mutation rates can evolve, under conditions that favor an increased rate of adaptation, by hitchhiking on beneficial mutations through induced linkage disequilibrium. Here we argue that spatial sorting, iterated founder events, and population structure benefit the build-up and maintenance of such linkage disequilibrium. We investigate if the evolution of mutation rates could play a role in explaining the 'genetic paradox of invasive species' for a sexually reproducing species colonizing a landscape of gradually changing conditions. Results: We use an individual-based model to show the evolutionary increase of mutation rates in sexual populations during range expansion, in coevolution with the dispersal probability. The observed evolution of mutation rate is adaptive and clearly advances invasion speed both through its effect on the evolution of dispersal probability, and the evolution of local adaptation. This also occurs under a variable temperature gradient, and under the assumption of 90% lethal mutations. Conclusions: In this study we show novel consequences of the particular genetic properties of populations under spatial disequilibrium, i.e. the coevolution of dispersal probability and mutation rate, even in a sexual species and under realistic spatial gradients, resulting in faster invasions. The evolution of mutation rates can therefore be added to the list of possible explanations for the 'genetic paradox of invasive species'. We conclude that range expansions and the evolution of mutation rates are in a positive feedback loop, with possibly far-reaching ecological consequences concerning invasiveness and the adaptability of species to novel environmental conditions.