Tag Archives: genetics

Why have sex? To fight parasites, of course!

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThis post was selected by Vincent Racaniello as an editor’s selection on ResearchBlogging.org The (revised) title of this post was suggested by Lucas Brouwers. Check out his excellent blog on evolution, Thoughtomics.

New Zealand mud snails, before and after infection by parasites. These tiny creatures may move slowly, but peering beneath the surface reveals an incredible race for survival.

Why do we have sex? If this question keeps you up at night, you either have really loud neighbors, or you have the makings of an evolutionary biologist. Some of the most brilliant minds in the field – William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and George Williams – have spent much of their careers wondering about the value of sex. This is not a reflection on the quality of their sex lives. Rather, it has more to do with their creative insight and ability to look at the world with fresh eyes.

A billion years ago, our ancestors inhabited a world without sex. This was the era of the clones. In this strange world, all organisms reproduced by creating identical genetic copies of themselves, somewhat similar to how modern-day bacteria reproduce [1]. But this clonal strategy has a problem. Populations made up of identical twins are more vulnerable to infection. When a disease comes along, it doesn’t just wipe out a few individuals. It can take out the whole lot.

When sex arrived, it introduced a new pace to life. Organisms were mixing and matching genes in combinations never seen before. Imagine a world where you had to dress well to survive. In such a world, the invention of sex is like going from wearing uniforms to having your own wardrobe. You could pick a gene from here, another from there, and put together a novel offspring. And if a particular outfit were deemed ‘unfit’, it’s not a huge tragedy as there are plenty of alternatives.

In this way, sex helps us by innovating new evolutionary solutions and by protecting us from disease. But sex is not without its discontents. For one thing, sexual reproduction implies that you only pass down half your genes to your offspring. The other half come from the other parent, and they combine to make an offspring with a full set of genes. On the other hand, in asexual reproduction, the mother passes on a full set of genes to her offspring. So by adopting sex, your genes are travelling half as far. In evolutionary terms, this is a huge cost, and sex had better have a lot to offer for it.

John Maynard Smith described "the two-fold cost of sex" - Asexual populations (b) grow twice as fast as sexual populations (a).

Do the benefits outweigh the costs? We would certainly like to think so. But when evolutionary biologists did the math, they worked out that the answer is usually no. Your genes typically have more to gain if you reproduced asexually.

So what gives? Why, then, do so many species adopt a sexual lifestyle? Well, here’s a brilliant solution offered by Hamilton and others: if you are under constant attack by rapidly evolving parasites, then sex is a better strategy than cloning yourself. This idea came to be known as the Red Queen hypothesis and can be summarized in one line: it’s harder to hit a moving target.

"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

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Blind fish in dark caves shed light on the evolution of sleep

An eyeless Mexican cavefish. If you think it looks sleepy, read on.

This post has been submitted to the NESCent Evolution Blogging Contest

Out of the approximately 3 billion letters of DNA that make up your genome, there are about a 100 letters that neither of your parents possess. These are your own personal mutations. The machinery that copies DNA into new cells is very reliable, but it is not perfect. It makes errors at a rate equivalent to making a single typo for every 100 books filled with text. The sperm and egg cells that fused to form you carried a few such mutations, and therefore so do you.

Every child who grew up watching cartoons like X-men or the ninja turtles associates mutations with superpowers. But the sad reality is that, somewhat like a double edged sword, mutations are more likely to hurt you than do any good. Imagine if you were to change a few letters at random in a book. Chances are, you are not improving the story. A typo doesn’t usually do much. It’s easy to overlook and doesn’t change the essential meaning of a sentence. This is the idea of the neutral theory of evolution, that most mutations have little or no effect on the organism. While this may be the case, the rare events pack quite a punch. Beneficial mutations are rare, but they are the only road through which organisms become better adapted to their environments.*

Changes to DNA are more likely to be disruptive than beneficial, simply because it is easier for changes to mess things up than to improve them. This mutational burden is something that all life forms have to bear. In the long run, individuals that carry harmful mutations will, on average, produce fewer offspring than their peers. Over many generations, this means that the mutation will dwindle in frequency. This is how natural selection is constantly ‘weeding out’ disruptive mutations from our genomes.

There is a flip side to this argument, and it is the story of the blind cave fish. If a mutation disrupts a gene that is not being used, natural selection will have no restoring effect. This is why fish that adapt to a lifestyle of darkness in a cave tend to lose their eyes. There is no longer any advantage to having eyes, and so the deleterious mutations that creep in are no longer being weeded out. Think of it as the ‘use it or lose it’ school of evolution.**

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