Lesbian Necrophiliac Bdelloid Rotifers (and the Scientists who Love Them): Part 1

by Jennifer Frazer on April 30, 2009

So you’ve been having a rough decade eking out a living as a bdelloid rotifer, living in the soil, some moss, or a small vernal pool. First, it stopped raining a few days after you hatched. Then you entered a period of dried-up stasis in which your cell membranes ruptured, metabolism ground to a halt, and DNA may have been cuisinarted. Bummer.

But lucky for you, it started raining! And guess what, it’s raining genes! (Cue The Weather Girls) Which is great news, because your species is all female and hasn’t had sex in 100 million years. Hallelujah!

Scanning electron micrographs showing morphological variation of bdelloid rotifers and their jaws. We're going to need a bigger microscope (apologies to Roy Scheider and Peter Benchley). Photo by Diego Fontaneto, available under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Click photo for link.

As described in this little article over at discovermagazine.com, without a way to exchange and recombine genetic information, many animal species tend to degenerate and disappear over time (thus the joy of sex) because they lack efficient ways to generate novelty that can help them adapt to changing environments. That’s OK — when you’re a bdelloid rotifer, you can do it Hoover style: just vacuum up whatever stray DNA happens to be in your environment, including the genes of whatever it was you might have recently had for dinner (note to self: glad am not bdelloid rotifer). Plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and who knows? — you might even get lucky. You might manage to incorporate some variant versions of your own species’s genes, thus escaping the cruel grind of creeping genetic obsolescence.

Coming soon: Part 2: So what is a bdelloid rotifer anyway?

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