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Competitive Generosity Drives Charitable Donations

Fri, 17 Apr 2015 12:09:46 +0000

Unconditional generosity is a characteristic of humans on which we pride ourselves, and billions of dollars is donated to hundreds of thousands of charitable organisations every year. But look at it from an evolutionary perspective, and this trait seems difficult to explain. In some situations, giving may have evolved to advertise positive characteristics of the […]

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Annoucing the Winners of the Write About Research Competition

Fri, 10 Apr 2015 13:49:07 +0000

Thanks to everyone who entered our Write About Research competition. We received some great entries from GEE students and postdocs, covering a broad range of topics from conservation to genetics. The entries will be posted here over the coming months, so watch this space! The Winners are… Drum roll please … WINNER: David Curnick – […]

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Male Promiscuity Boosts Role of Chance in Sex Chromosome Evolution

Thu, 19 Mar 2015 15:02:31 +0000

Humans, like all mammals and birds, determine sex with chromosomes. Whether a fertilised egg develops into a male or female depends on what chromosomes it carries Scientists have long recognised that genes evolve a little differently on the sex chromosomes, and recent research in GEE suggests this may be due to differing patterns of inheritance […]

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Sloths Move Slow, Evolve Fast

Wed, 11 Mar 2015 18:20:41 +0000

Sloths might be notorious for their leisurely pace of life, but research published last year shows they are no slow coaches when it comes to evolution. Sloths, as we know and love them, are small, slow-moving creatures found in the trees of tropical rainforests. But modern sloths are pretty odd compared to their extinct relatives. […]

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Write About Research – A GEE Research Blog Competition

Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:28:43 +0000

The GEE Research blog communicates UCL science with a wider, non-specialist audience, by providing short summaries of recent research in the department of UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment. This provides an opportunity to engage with a broad audience, including other academics, students, members of the public, and even businesses and policy-makers. It is a great […]

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Mitochondria and the great gender divide - GEE's Profs Andrew Pomiankowski, Rob Seymour and Dr Nick Lane and Zena Hadjivasiliou publish paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B

13 December 2011

8 December 2011

Eukaryotic cells

Why are there two sexes? It’s a question that has long perplexed generations of scientists, but researchers from UCL have come up with a radical new answer: mitochondria.

Using a new mathematical model, the team led by Dr Nick Lane and colleagues from the UCL CoMPLEX, and the Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment showed that inheriting mitochondria from only one parent – in effect, the ‘female’ – improves fitness by optimizing the interactions between the two genomes. The paper is published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Dr Lane said: “The difference between the sexes boils down to the need to keep fit when energy demands are high”.

Descended from free-living bacteria, mitochondria were swallowed whole by another cell between one and a half to two billion years ago. But despite being engulfed, these tiny power packs have retained their own tiny genome, encoding just a handful of proteins, all of which are necessary for generating energy in the cell. 

The strangest thing about this odd arrangement is that cell respiration relies on proteins encoded by two genomes, the tiny mitochondrial genome and the nucleus, where most DNA is stored. For respiration to work properly, the two genomes must work together to encode proteins that interact with nanoscopic precision. 

"This difference seems to be the deepest evolutionary difference between the two sexes" - Zena Hadjivasiliou

Zena Hadjivasiliou, a PhD student in CoMPLEX and first author of the paper, said: “A clue to the answer was found in simple single celled organisms called protists. These tiny creatures normally have two sexes, despite the fact that it is impossible to tell them apart even with an electron microscope. 

“The only real difference between these ‘sexes’ relates to mitochondria, the tiny power packs found in all complex cells. In simple protists, one sex passes on mitochondria, the other does not,” added Hadjivasiliou. 

While the model shows that two sexes are only borderline necessary in simple cells like protists, but by the time large, energetically demanding organisms had evolved, two sexes made a big difference to maintaining fitness. 

Hadjivasiliou said: “This difference seems to be the deepest evolutionary difference between the two sexes. As a result all the gender wars throughout nature ultimately stand on this pinhead.”

Image: Altmann's Bioblasts - The four seasons (Credit: Odra Noel)

Links

Nick Lane
Energy revolution key to complex life
UCL’s Nick Lane wins the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books
Research in Proceedings of the Royal Society B
UCL CoMPLEX
Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment

Page last modified on 13 dec 11 12:16