The chain-forming dinoflagellate Gymnodinium catenatum Graham is responsible for outbreaks of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), a human health threat in coastal waters. Sexuality in this species is of great importance in its bloom dynamics, and has been shown to be very complex but lacks an explanation. For this reason, we tested if unreported homothallic behavior and rapid genetic changes may clarify the sexual system of this alga. To achieve this objective, 12 clonal strains collected from the Spanish coast were analyzed for the presence of sexual reproduction. Mating affinity results, self-compatibility studies, and genetic fingerprinting (amplified fragment length polymorphism, AFLP) analysis on clonal strains, showed three facts not previously described for this species: (i) That there is a continuous mating system within G. catenatum, with either self-compatible strains (homothallic), or strains that needed to be outcrossed (heterothallic), and with a range of differences in cyst production among the crosses. (ii) There was intraclonal genetic variation, i.e. genetic variation within an asexual lineage. Moreover, the variability among homothallic clones was smaller than among the heterothallic ones. (iii) Sibling strains (the two strains established by the germination of one cyst) increased their intra- and inter-sexual compatibility with time. To summarize, we have found that G. catenatum's sexual system is much more complex than previously described, including complex homothallic/heterothallic behaviors. Additionally, high rates of genetic variability may arise in clonal strains, although explanations for the mechanisms responsible are still lacking. (C) 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.