For a bunch of inanimate chemical compounds, the nucleic and amino acids caught up in the infamous “selfish” segregation distorter (SD) saga have put on quite a soap opera for biologists since the phenomenon was discovered in fruit flies 50 years ago. A new study, a highlight in the March issue of the journal Genetics, provides the latest plot twist.
A subcellular life and death struggle
Healthy spermatids (maturing sperm) of a fly, left, are decimated in a setting dominated by a “segregation distorter,” right. A runaway snippet of code that rapidly copies itself helps target spermatids for fatal attacks. Credit: Reenan lab/Brown University
In TV listings the series would be described this way: “A gene exploits a rival gene’s excesses, sabotaging any sperm that bear a rival’s chromosome.” The listing is not an exaggeration except for ascribing malicious intent to strings of biochemicals. When male flies make their sperm, the SD gene (call it “A”) manages to rig meiosis — the specialized cell division that makes sex cells — so that maturing sperm that bear chromosomes with the susceptible allele (call that one “a”) end up defective and discarded. They never even leave the testes.
It is murder of a sort. Similar selfish systems occur in mammals, including humans.
In the Genetics study conducted at Brown University, scientists uncover new clues about how the SD gene might be gaming the system against “a.” It’s a plot so fiendish, only an aggregation of genetic bases could evolve it. It also deepens biologists’ understanding of an instance in which life violates a fundamental balance predicted by the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel.
“Mendel’s first law is that different alleles of a gene will segregate,” said Robert Reeenan, professor of biology and the study’s senior author. “If we have two alleles — big A and little a — then Mendel says 50 percent of the sperm at random will get the big A and 50 percent of the sperm will get the little a. But some SD (A) alleles are so strong they pretty much kill off all the non-SD (a) chromosomes.
“This is a real cheater, a real stinker,” Reenan said. “Most genes, like most people, are good upstanding citizens, but some genes want to hog all the resources, hog all the benefit.”
The SD backstory
What makes the “a” allele susceptible to SD’s subterfuge is the number of copies it harbors of a runaway snippet of genetic code called Responder. A few copies of Responder are no problem, but hundreds of copies make “a” susceptible. Some alleles have thousands of copies and only one in a thousand survives.
Genomes try to root out parasites like Responder by creating and dispatching proteins into the nucleus and the cytoplasm. These police proteins are armed with “police sketches” of the parasites in the form of small RNA transcripts.
The new plot twist
It struck Reenan and lead author Selena Gell that this policing system — because it targets self-copiers like Responder — might somehow have a role in the SD saga. They decided to find out by purposely perturbing the system.
In the experiments described in Genetics, Reenan and Gell show that engineered mutations in the police gene named Aubergine (others on the force in the experiments are called Piwi, Squash, and Zucchini) amplify SD chromosomes’ success in eliminating Responder-laden sperm, compared to that of SD chromosomes without Aubergine’s help. The results show that this police system suppresses Responder, and therefore SD. It also means that if SD somehow can upset the policing system, it can have a field day.
“We’re the first to have experimentally shown that mutations in the system can modify the degree of distortion,” Reenan said. “We used homologous recombination to knock in a mutation specifically on the SD chromosome to compromise Aubergine, and that’s exactly what we saw: the chromosome became more selfish.”
Reenan and Gell did not go so far as to determine whether known SD-promoting genes called Enhancer of SD, Stabilizer of SD, and Modifier of SD act by interfering with Aubergine or its buddies on the force, but Reenan said that is among the next things his group will look into.
In the meantime, he reflects, it may not be entirely fair for biologists to label SD as “selfish” and not Responder as well. As an out-of-control self-repeater in the genome, Responder is surely no prize, and SD performs something of a service by taking it out when it can.
The whole story is really a clash of the selfish. “Humans, flies, all of us have been attacked for millennia by selfish genetic elements that want to make as many copies as possible,” Reenan said.
Sometimes, as in SD flies, there are no apparent ill effects, but when the selfish genes come in the form of viruses or other kinds of transposons, there can be trouble. So investigating the tactics of selfish genes is not merely the stuff of biological soap operas.
Gell, who was supported by a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship during the research, is now a postdoctoral scholar at Harvard University.
Editors: Brown University has a fiber link television studio available for domestic and international live and taped interviews, and maintains an ISDN line for radio interviews. For more information, call (401) 863-2476.
David Orenstein | EurekAlert!
Understanding a missing link in how antidepressants work
25.11.2015 | Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, München
Plant Defense as a Biotech Tool
25.11.2015 | Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (ACIB)
The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...
Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.
In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...
In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.
Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...
Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...
AWI researchers’ unique 15-year observation series reveals how sensitive marine ecosystems in polar regions are to change
The warming of arctic waters in the wake of climate change is likely to produce radical changes in the marine habitats of the High North. This is indicated by...
25.11.2015 | Event News
17.11.2015 | Event News
21.10.2015 | Event News
25.11.2015 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
25.11.2015 | Earth Sciences
25.11.2015 | Physics and Astronomy