The pond-dwelling, single-celled organism Oxytricha trifallax has the remarkable ability to break its own DNA into nearly a quarter-million pieces and rapidly reassemble those pieces when it’s time to mate, the researchers report in the journal Cell. The organism internally stores its genome as thousands of scrambled, encrypted gene pieces. Upon mating with another of its kind, the organism rummages through these jumbled genes and DNA segments to piece together more than 225,000 tiny strands of DNA. This all happens in about 60 hours.
The organism’s ability to take apart and quickly reassemble its own genes is unusually elaborate for any form of life, explained senior author Laura Landweber, a Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. That such intricacy exists in a seemingly simple organism accentuates the “true diversity of life on our planet,” she said.
“It’s one of nature’s early attempts to become more complex despite staying small in the sense of being unicellular,” Landweber said. “There are other examples of genomic jigsaw puzzles, but this one is a leader in terms of complexity. People might think that pond-dwelling organisms would be simple, but this shows how complex life can be, that it can reassemble all the building blocks of chromosomes.”
HALT! Say the science semantic police. Nature doesn’t “attempt”to become more complex. Nature is not supposed to have purpose, remember? Evolution is blind. And life forms are supposed to progress from being simple to being complex.
An individual Oxytricha cell, however, keeps its active DNA in one working nucleus and uses the second to store an archive of the genetic material it will pass along to the next generation, Landweber said. The genome of this second nucleus — known as the germ-line nucleus — undergoes the dismantling and reconstruction to produce a new working nucleus in the offspring.
Oxytricha uses sex solely to exchange DNA rather than to reproduce, Landweber said — like plant cuttings, new Oxytricha populations spawn from a single organism. During sex, two organisms fuse together to share half of their genetic information. The object is for each cell to replace aging genes with new genes and DNA parts from its partner. Together, both cells construct new working nuclei with a fresh set of chromosomes. This rejuvenates them and diversifies their genetic material, which is good for the organism, Landweber said.
“It’s kind of like science fiction — they stop aging by trading in their old parts,” she said.
And, according to theory, it all just sort of happened by natural selection acting on random mutations. Note: Probability calculations are not permitted in Darwinclass! Elsewhere, they are fine. Be elsewhere.
Here’s the abstract:
Programmed DNA rearrangements in the single-celled eukaryote Oxytricha trifallax completely rewire its germline into a somatic nucleus during development. This elaborate, RNA-mediated pathway eliminates noncoding DNA sequences that interrupt gene loci and reorganizes the remaining fragments by inversions and permutations to produce functional genes. Here, we report the Oxytricha germline genome and compare it to the somatic genome to present a global view of its massive scale of genome rearrangements. The remarkably encrypted genome architecture contains >3,500 scrambled genes, as well as >800 predicted germline-limited genes expressed, and some posttranslationally modified, during genome rearrangements. Gene segments for different somatic loci often interweave with each other. Single gene segments can contribute to multiple, distinct somatic loci. Terminal precursor segments from neighboring somatic loci map extremely close to each other, often overlapping. This genome assembly provides a draft of a scrambled genome and a powerful model for studies of genome rearrangement. Registration required to view article.
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