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Need sex? It's probably something about stress

by the mixing of genes that occurs, first when sperm and eggs are formed and again when they merge.

But about 15 years ago, Michod and some of his UA colleagues proposed an alternative explanation called the DNA-repair hypothesis.

They suggest that the process which divvies out parental genetic material to sperm and eggs also repairs the DNA that goes into those cells. The repair mechanism keeps the hard knocks that life dealt the parents' DNA from being passed on to the children.

"Sex is all about maintaining the health of the DNA you give your kids," Michod said.

Although there has been work supporting the DNA-repair hypothesis as the reason for sex in single-celled organisms, Michod said the current work is the first evidence that DNA repair is a reason for multicellular organisms to have sex.

"I'd always believed it, but we never had concrete evidence in multicellular organisms until now," he said. "I'm thrilled."

For many organisms, sex is not the main method of reproduction. Instead, sex is a response to stress.

And stress generally increases the production of free radicals, sometimes called oxidants.

While pondering those two facts, Nedelcu, then a research associate in Michod's lab, wondered whether the signal for sex in such organisms is an increase in oxidants.

To test her idea, she used Volvox, the lab rat of the algal world.

Tiny spheres of gel with individual alga cells spread over the surface of the sphere like polka dots, Volvox colonies can be found in temporary ponds that fill with water in the spring and slowly dry out as summer progresses.

In addition to the outer cells, a colony also has specialized reproductive cells tucked inside the center of the 0.5 millimeter-diameter sphere. Some colonies are male, some are female. The colonies reproduce asexually, by fission of the reproductive
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8-Jun-2004


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