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No sex for 40 million years? No problem

A group of organisms that has never had sex in over 40 million years of existence has nevertheless managed to evolve into distinct species, says new research published today. The study challenges the assumption that sex is necessary for organisms to diversify and provides scientists with new insight into why species evolve in the first place.

The research, published in PLoS Biology, focuses on the study of bdelloid rotifers, microscopic aquatic animals that live in watery or occasionally wet habitats including ponds, rivers, soils, and on mosses and lichens. These tiny asexual creatures multiply by producing eggs that are genetic clones of the mother there are no males. Fossil records and molecular data show that bdelloid rotifers have been around for over 40 million years without sexually reproducing, and yet this new study has shown that they have evolved into distinct species.

Using a combination of DNA sequencing and jaw measurements taken using a scanning electron microscope, the research team examined bdelloid rotifers living in different aquatic environments across the UK, Italy and other parts of the world. They found genetic and jaw-shape evidence that the rotifers had evolved into distinct species by adapting to differences in their environment.

Dr Tim Barraclough from Imperial College London's Division of Biology explained: "We found evidence that different populations of these creatures have diverged into distinct species, not just because they become isolated in different places, but because of the differing selection pressures in different environments.

"One remarkable example is of two species living in close proximity on the body of another animal, a water louse. One lives around its legs, the other on its chest, yet they have diverged in body size and jaw shape to occupy these distinct ecological niches. Our results show that, over millions of years, natural selection has caused divergence into distinct
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Contact: Danielle Reeves
danielle.reeves@imperial.ac.uk
44-020-759-42198
Imperial College London
19-Mar-2007


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