Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Trick or Treat

Latest additions to my portfolio, right in time for Halloween. ;-)

Trick or Treat!

Daphne by EEG

The Music Room by EEG

Friday, October 18, 2013

Time for a chimera contest!

I've participated to so many blog contests in the past years, I figure it's time to give back and hold a contest of my own. So -- insert drum roll here -- I'm giving away the above image, printed on canvas and mounted on a 11x16 frame, to one lucky winner.

Here's how to participate:
1. If you haven't already, please "like" the Chimeras FB page.
2. Leave a comment either here on the blog or on the FB page -- tell me what it is you like about this blog. Suggestions are very welcome!
3. Not mandatory, but if you invite your friends to "like" the page I'll count your entry twice (let me know in the comments). I know, sorry, trying to pull some audience my way...

That's it! One week from now I will draw one lucky winner. If you're selected, I'll ask you for a shipping address so I can send you the canvas.

Shares are not mandatory but highly appreciated. The more the merrier. :-)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Fall Colors!

Yes, the days may be getting shorter and colder, but aren't the colors just gorgeous?

And then, of course, I couldn't resist playing with textures. Different feel, definitely more painterly, but still lovely. This time the texture was provided by NM photographer Karen Waters. If you live in NM, make sure to stop by the Fuller Lodge Art Center to check out her amazing work.

Whether it's fall or spring, enjoy the seasonal colors wherever you are.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Breaking free

Don't you ever wish you could just ...

Breaking Free by EEG

If you are curious to know how I made this image, you can see the "behind the scene" pictures in this G+ album.

Edit: I'm thrilled to announce that this image was accepted into the 2013 Twelve: Natural Magic juried exhibit to take place from December 11 until January 4 at the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in Sacramento, CA.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sex Is Always Well Worth Its Two-Fold Cost

Title borrowed from Feigel et al. [1].

Sex is costly. In an asexual population, all individuals bear offsprings, resulting in a higher growth rate than in a sexual population (two-fold cost of sex). Finding a partner is risky, costly in terms of energy and resources, and it results in sexual selection which may not always favor survival. Finally, in sexual populations each individual passes only 50% of its genetic make-up to their offsprings and, furthermore, genetic recombination could break-up alleles that are in an epitastic relationship with one another (they are advantageous when together, but once separated they may incur into fitness loss).

"The advantages of sexual reproduction stem from quite various roots. For instance, sex increases genetic variability by recombination of the parental chromosomes. It makes a population more resistant against many unpredictable threats, such as deleterious mutations, parasites, a fluctuating environment, or competing groups. It also optimizes the evolutionary search for the best gene combinations in a single individual (epistasis) [1]."
Let's try an understand this better. Different alleles in the genome are not always independent, as they may affect fitness in conjunction, a mechanism called epistasis. For example, two alleles may be beneficial together, but their benefit may be lost when separated by a recombination event. Or, it could be the other way around, that a mutation arises under certain constraints, and it's not until paired with a second mutation that it becomes beneficial. This is often observed in drug resistance, for example. A mutation that confers the organism (a virus, or a bacterium) drug resistance could potentially make it less fit (for example, if it makes the organism more "visible" to the immune system). In these cases, often one observes a new mutation arise in conjunction with the drug-resistant one, and the two together restore the organism's original fitness. These secondary mutations are called compensatory mutations because they compensate for the original loss of fitness.

Recombination of genomes can go either way: it can bring beneficial mutations together, or, it can break them apart. In a Nature Genetics review [2], the authors mention a study done on segmented viruses: in this case, "sex" is equivalent to two viruses co-infecting the same cell, as when this happens the enzyme that replicates the genes jumps back and forth between the two genomes and the resulting new genome is a reshuffle of the two parental ones. The advantage of using viruses to study the effect of sex is that you can compare the result of sexual reproduction versus asexual reproduction in the same population. In the case of the segmented virus study, it was observed that an adverse mutation was slower to get cleared in the sexual population than the asexual one.

The same review cites studies done on yeast that yielded mixed results: some showed that sex did increase the rate of adaptation of the population, and some showed the opposite. A paradox? Not quite, if you throw into the picture the size of the population.
"Two recent studies have also tested the effect of recombination on the rate of adaptation in evolving microbial populations. When populations of C. reinhardtii that initially lacked genetic variation were allowed to adapt to a novel growth medium in sexual and asexual populations of varying size, sex increased the rate of adaptation at all population sizes, but particularly in large populations [2]."
Another study done on sexual and asexual yeast strains, compared adaptation in two environments: the mouse brain, which represented a highly variable environment, and a test tube with minimal growth medium.
"When sex was induced, the sexual strain won the competition in the mouse brain but not in the test tube, despite the fact that it also showed general adaptation to this environment. These results indicate an advantage to sex during adaptation to variable or harsh environments [2]."
Despite all these studies, it is still unclear what drove the evolution of sex. Did sex prevail thanks to epistasis? Or was it just drift, the random accumulation of mutations due to pure chance? More recent studies have looked at a combination of mechanisms that may have been responsible for the rise in sexual populations. For example, other aspects to account for, besides epistasis and drift, are redundancy and genome complexity. As organisms have evolved, their genomes have increased in size and complexity. Redundancy allows for more than one gene or pathway to have same function, buffering the effect of deleterious mutations. It also maintains a reservoir of non-coding allele variants that are always available in the search for new evolutionary pathways. At the same time, sex and recombination together cause genomes to be more robust and overcome the short-term disadvantage in favor of long-term advantages like increased evolvability.

[1] Alexander Feigel,, Avraham Englander,, & Assaf Engel (2009). Sex Is Always Well Worth Its Two-Fold Cost PLoS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006012

[2] J. Arjan G. M. de Visser & Santiago F. Elena (2007). The evolution of sex: empirical insights into the roles of epistasis and drift Nature Genetics Review DOI: 10.1038/nrg1985

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Latest addition to my portfolio.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ms. Stick Insect

Image credit:

You're looking at a stick insect, a critter I was quite used to growing up as my dad, an evolutionary biologist, used to grow them at home. I know, most households have cats, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits; ours had cats, dogs, toads, fruit flies, and stick insects. :-)

Children have a tendency to personify everything, animals in particular, so imagine my shock when my dad told me that stick insects are all... ladies. Yup. It's Ms. Stick Insect. And the reason why I mention this is that today I'd like to talk about sex. Ha! You didn't see that coming, did you?

How does an all-female population manage to reproduce? Embryos develop from eggs using parthenogenesis, without the need to be fertilized. This doesn't mean that the offsprings will be identical to the parent. "Reshuffling" of genes is still ensured by meiosis.

In organisms that reproduce sexually, meiosis produces gametes, cells that carry half of the chromosomes and therefore, once fused with the opposite sex gamete, it will produce a cell with the full number of chromosomes. In organisms that reproduce sexually, meiosis produces gametes, cells that carry half of the chromosomes and therefore, once fused with the opposite sex gamete, it will produce a cell with the full number of chromosomes. In diploid organisms (organisms that have two copies of each chromosome), meiosis takes place in the following steps: (i) DNA replication, which creates two exact copies of each chromosome; (ii) pairing of the chromosome homologs, one maternal and one paternal; (iii) the homologs' cross-over creating a unique mix of maternal and paternal DNA; (iii) another round of cell division creates four cells, each with one set of chromosomes.

In parthenogenesis meiosis, step (i) is skipped. In order to restore the two copies of chromosomes, in some perhenogenetic animals, the cell division in step (iv) creates two cells instead of four, each with two copies of chromosomes. However, stick insects employ a different strategy: step (iv) still creates four cells, of which only one has the cytoplasm. This cell then fuses with one of the other three effectively creating and egg with two copies of chromosomes, perfectly equivalent to a fertilized egg.

Not all stick insects reproduce through parthenogenesis. Some populations do have males and mate, though usually only about 10% of offsprings come from sexual reproduction. Morgan-Richards et al. [1] compared several populations of New Zealand stick insects (C. hookeri), and found that while mated females produced male and female offsprings in equal numbers, virgin females that reproduced via parthenogenesis produced mostly females. That's right, I said "mostly".

"A single male hatched from an egg laid by a captive virgin mother. [...] This male may have arisen by the loss of an X chromosome during cell division (non-disjunction), a mechanism recorded for other stick insect species with the same XO⁄XX sex-determination mechanism seen in C. hookeri [1]."

So even in completely parthenogenetic populations, in principle sexual reproduction is not completely lost as the reshuffling provided by meiosis can, occasionally, originate a male offspring. Furthermore, the authors confirmed a geographical distribution of the parthenogenetic population of stick insects compared to the sexual ones: all female populations in New Zealand tend to be more common farther away from the equator and at higher altitudes, implying the adaptive advantage of parthenogens in certain environments but not in others.

The fact that parthenogens would have an adaptive advantage intrigued me, so I dug a bit further and found out about a concept called the two-fold cost of sex. In a sexual population, only one of the two sexes bares offsprings, while in a one-sex population all individuals bare offsprings, hence significantly increasing its growth rate. This seems to indicate that asexual populations have a higher Darwinian fitness. So, how did we end up with so many sexual species given especially that we all originated from asexual ancestors? How can sex be evolutionary successful when the odds seem to be against it?

I'll save that discussion for the next post. :-)

[1] MARY MORGAN-RICHARDS,, STEVE A. TREWICK,, & IAN A. N. STRINGER (2010). Geographic parthenogenesis and the common tea-tree stick insect of New Zealand Molecular Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2010.04542.x