As far back as the 1960s, scientists were aware that a number of whiptail lizards in Mexico and the southwestern United States were made up entirely of females.
The most notable of these species, the New Mexico whiptail lizard, is able to reproduce healthy, well-bred offspring without the aid of male fertilization.
Whiptails aren’t the only species that reproduce asexually. In fact, there are 70 other vertebrate species that can do it. But the New Mexico whiptail may have unlocked the secret as to how it’s possible for a species that produces exclusively asexually to thrive.
Peter Baumann works at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri. He co-authored a study on the lizards that was published in the journal Nature back in 2010.
Baumann explains that parthenogenteic species (species that reproduce without fertilization), are genetically isolated because they only inherit the DNA of one parent.
This means that any genetic weaknesses, like susceptibility to a disease or physical mutation, can’t be “overridden” by healthy genes from a second parent. The shallower the gene pool, the more likely it is to produce sick or mutated offspring.
To deal with this issue, the all-female whiptail lizard species have evolved to start the reproductive process with twice as many chromosomes as their sexually-producing lizard relatives.
New Mexico whiptail lizards were actually the result of two different species of lizard (the western whiptail and little striped whiptail) interbreeding to form a hybrid species. Because of this, these all-female lizards are equipped with a very diverse gene pool.
Instead of combining homologous chromosomes (like sexual species do, getting one set from each parent), the lizards pair recombined sister chromosomes instead. This maintains heterozygosity in the offspring.
Here’s a more simple way to think about it. Every one one us has DNA from generations and generations of our ancestors. When we reproduce, we combine our DNA with our partner’s- the resulting offspring’s genetic codes contains parts of both parents’ DNA.
But since we have such vast genetic diversity from all of our ancestors, the exact coding of the genes we pass along when we reproduce isn’t always the same, which is why brothers and sisters don’t all look the same.
So, rather than combining its genetic code with that of a male, the whiptail lizard combines two different versions of its own DNA code, ensuring that each pairing of sister chromosomes will have multiple alleles (different forms of a gene), which gives the offspring the genetic diversity it needs to be healthy.
This discovery means that,
“these lizards have a way of distinguishing sister from homologous chromosomes,”
says Baumann. How do they do this? The researchers aren’t sure yet, but it’s the next question they will be investigating, along with the question of how they evolved to start reproduction with double the normal amount of chromosomes.
Though it may seem like asexual reproduction would eventually hurt a species in the long run, Baumann also pointed that,
“You’re greatly increasing the chances of populating a new habitat if it only takes one individual.”
It seems to be working pretty well for these lizard ladies.
Read the original story from the Scientific American here.