Most writers wouldn’t be pleased to see their name in a national newspaper next to the headline “I haven’t had sex for 40 million years. Should I worry?” But what are science writers, if not a little strange…
When our lives are in danger, some humans go on the run, seeking refuge in other countries far away from the threats of home. Animals too migrate to escape danger but one group – the pond-living bdelloid rotifers – have taken this game of hide-and-seek to an extreme.
If they are threatened by parasitic fungi, they completely remove any trace of water in their bodies, drying themselves out to a degree that their parasites can’t stand. In this desiccated state, they ride the wind to safety, seeking fresh pastures where they can establish new populations free of any parasites.
This incredible strategy may be partially responsible for another equally remarkable one – the complete abandonment of sex. For over 80 million years, the bdelloids (pronounced with a silent ‘b’) have lived an asexual existence. Daughters are identical clones of their mothers
, budded off from her body. No males have ever been discovered. For this reason, Olivia Judson once described bdelloid rotifers as an “evolutionary scandal”. Their sexless lifestyles simply shouldn’t work in the long run.
Ditching sex allows an animal to efficiently pass all of its genes to the next generation without having to seek out a mate. This should give asexual animals a big advantage but not so. Sex provides fuel for evolution. Every time two individuals meet in flagrante, their chromosomes are joined, shuffled and re-dealt to the next generation. In this way, sex begets diversity, remixing genes into exciting new combinations.
This diversity is a vital weapon in the never-ending war against parasites. Parasites, with their large populations and short generations, are quick to evolve new ways of exploiting their hosts. They could have their run of a genetically uniform population and soon bring it to its knees. A sexually active species is a harder target. With genes that shuffle every generation, new anti-parasite adaptations are always just one bout of mating away. And so it goes, again and again, with hosts constantly having to outrun their parasites and sex acting as the getaway vehicle.
So asexual reproduction, for all its immediate gains, should be a poor long-term strategy compared to the dynamic nature of sex. Bdelloids have clearly addressed this problem and thanks to the last few years of research, we know how. They have evolved ways of achieving every single one of the many benefits of sex, without actually doing the deed. Escape parasites? They’ve got that covered. Shuffle their genes? They do that too. Generate genetic diversity? Check.
Bdelloid rotifers are one of the strangest of all animals. Uniquely, these small, freshwater invertebrates reproduce entirely asexually and have avoided sex for some 80 million years. At any point of their life cycle, they can be completely dried out and live happily in a dormant state before being rehydrated again.
This last ability has allowed them to colonise a number of treacherous habitats such as freshwater pools and the surfaces of mosses and lichens, where water is plentiful but can easily evaporate away. The bdelloids (pronounced with a silent ‘b’) have evolved a suite of adaptations for surviving dry spells and some of these have had an unexpected side effect – they’ve made the bdelloids the most radiation-resistant animals on the planet.
Ionising (high-energy) radiation is bad news for living cells. Far from granting superpowers, it damages DNA, often completely breaking both strands of the all-important molecule. If you think of DNA as a recipe book for the various parts of a living thing, the double-stranded DNA breaks that are caused by ionising radiation are like tearing the book up into small chunks.
Absorbed doses of radiation are measured in Grays and ten of these are more than enough to kill a human. In comparison, bdelloids are a hundred times harder. Eugene Gladyshev and Matthew Meselson from Harvard University found that two species shrugged off as much as 1,000 Grays and were still active two weeks after exposure.