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The DNA Eaters

December 18, 2012

A group of microscopic animals get 10% of their active genes by eating the DNA of other species.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Genes on the menu. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Sexual reproduction is thought to have evolved because it increases the genetic diversity of the offspring, giving them a survival advantage. But what if you could just eat your way to a more diverse genetic code? Microscopic animals called bdelloid rotifers do just that.Cambridgemolecular biologist Chiara Boschetti says about 10% of their active genes come from other species that they ingest.

CHIARA BOSCHETTI (University of Cambridge):

So basically, we found that an astonishing amount of genes that are expressed come from completely different organisms, like bacteria, plants, other microorganisms.

HIRSHON:

Boschetti says all bdelloid rotifers are female and reproduce without fertilization by a male, so all of these foreign genes have kept them genetically diverse for millions of years. She adds that rotifers are also extremely resistant to damaging radiation, and they can reanimate themselves after completely drying out. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Scanning electron micrographs of various bdelloid rotifers and their jaws. (Diego Fontaneto/PLoS Biology)