Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is DNA Repair a Substitute For Sex?

Bdelloid rotifers seem to get along just fine without sex. What’s more, they have done so over millions of years of evolution, resulting in at least 370 species. These hardy creatures somehow escape the usual drawback of asexuality – extinction!

Bdelloid rotifers have been able to give up sex and survive because they have evolved an extraordinary efficient mechanism for repairing harmful mutations to their DNA.

In animals that do have sex, DNA repair is accomplished during meiosis, when chromosomes pair up (one from the father, one from the mother) and “fit” genes on one chromosome can serve as templates to repair damaged genes on the other chromosome. The bdelloid, though, always seems to reproduce asexually, by making a clone of itself. How then, does it cope with deleterious mutations?

Scientists demonstrated the enormous DNA repair capacity of bdelloid rotifers by zapping them with ionizing radiation (gamma rays), which has the effect of shattering its DNA into many pieces. “We kept exposing them to more and more radiation, and they didn’t die and they didn’t die and they didn’t die,” says Mark Welch. Even at five times the levels of radiation that all other animals are known to endure, the bdelloids were able to continue reproducing.

Philodina roseola
The bdelloids’ DNA repair capacity probably evolved due to a different environmental adaptation – tolerance of extreme dryness. Bdelloids, which live in ephemeral aquatic habitats such as temporary freshwater pools and on mosses, are able to survive complete desiccation (drying out) at any stage of their life cycle. They just curl up and go dormant for weeks, months, or years, and when water becomes available, they spring back to life. Desiccation, like ionizing radiation, breaks up the rotifers’ DNA into many pieces. Presumably, the same mechanisms they use to survive desiccation as part of their life cycle also protect them from ionizing radiation.

Extreme Resistance of Bdelloid Rotifers to Ionizing Radiation.2008. Gladyshev, E., and M. Meselson . Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 105 (13): 5139-5144.

Evidence for degenerate tetraploidy in bdelloid rotifers. 2008. Mark Welch, D.B., J.L. Mark Welch and M. Meselson. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 105 (13): 5145-5149.