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.
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 | Source: EurekAlert!
Further information: www.brown.edu
More articles from Life Sciences:
Spheres can form squares
24.05.2013 | Wageningen University
Ferrets, pigs susceptible to H7N9 avian influenza virus
24.05.2013 | NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
This morning at 05:45 CEST, the earth trembled beneath the Okhotsk Sea in the Pacific Northwest. The quake, with a magnitude of 8.2, took place at an exceptional depth of 605 kilometers.
Because of the great depth of the earthquake a tsunami is not expected and there should also be no major damage due to shaking.
Professor Frederik Tilmann of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences: "The epicenter is exceptionally deep, far below the earth's crust in the mantle. Such strong ...
The Ring Nebula's distinctive shape makes it a popular illustration for astronomy books. But new observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope of the glowing gas shroud around an old, dying, sun-like star reveal a new twist.
"The nebula is not like a bagel, but rather, it's like a jelly doughnut, because it's filled with material in the middle," said C. Robert O'Dell of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
He leads a research team that used Hubble and several ground-based telescopes to obtain the best view yet of ...
New indicator molecules visualise the activation of auto-aggressive T cells in the body as never before
Biological processes are generally based on events at the molecular and cellular level. To understand what happens in the course of infections, diseases or normal bodily functions, scientists would need to examine individual cells and their activity directly in the tissue.
The development of new microscopes and fluorescent dyes in ...
A fried breakfast food popular in Spain provided the inspiration for the development of doughnut-shaped droplets that may provide scientists with a new approach for studying fundamental issues in physics, mathematics and materials.
The doughnut-shaped droplets, a shape known as toroidal, are formed from two dissimilar liquids using a simple rotating stage and an injection needle. About a millimeter in overall size, the droplets are produced individually, their shapes maintained by a surrounding springy material made of polymers.
Droplets in this toroidal shape made ...
Frauhofer FEP will present a novel roll-to-roll manufacturing process for high-barriers and functional films for flexible displays at the SID DisplayWeek 2013 in Vancouver – the International showcase for the Display Industry.
Displays that are flexible and paper thin at the same time?! What might still seem like science fiction will be a major topic at the SID Display Week 2013 that currently takes place in Vancouver in Canada.
High manufacturing cost and a short lifetime are still a major obstacle on ...
24.05.2013 | Life Sciences
24.05.2013 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
24.05.2013 | Physics and Astronomy
17.05.2013 | Event News
15.05.2013 | Event News
08.05.2013 | Event News