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Sexual reproduction was an early evolutionary innovation after the appearance of eukaryotic cells. All of these advantages to asexual reproduction, which are also disadvantages to sexual reproduction, should mean that the number of species with asexual reproduction should be more common.
However, multicellular organisms that exclusively depend on asexual reproduction are rare.
So why is sexual reproduction so common?
This is one of the important questions in biology and has been the focus of much research from the latter half of the twentieth century until now. A likely explanation is that the variation that sexual reproduction creates among offspring is very important to the survival and reproduction of those offspring. The only source of genetic variation in asexual organisms is mutation. In sexually reproducing organisms, mutations are continually reshuffled between generations when parents combine their unique genomes, and the genes are mixed into different combinations by the process of meiosis.
The Red Queen Hypothesis
There is no question that sexual reproduction provides evolutionary advantages to organisms that employ this mechanism to produce offspring. The problematic question is why, even in the face of seemingly stable conditions, sexual reproduction persists when it is more difficult and produces fewer offspring for individual organisms? Variation is the outcome of sexual reproduction, but why is ongoing variation necessary? Enter the Red Queen hypothesis, first proposed by Leigh Van Valen in 1973.1 The concept was named in reference to the Red Queen's race in Lewis Carroll's book, Through the Looking-Glass, in which the Red Queen says one must run at full speed just to stay where one is.
All species coevolve with other organisms. For example, predators coevolve with their prey, and parasites coevolve with their hosts. A remarkable example of coevolution between predators and their prey is the unique coadaptation of night flying bats and their moth prey. Bats find their prey by emitting high-pitched clicks, but moths have evolved simple ears to hear these clicks so they can avoid the bats. The moths have also adapted behaviors, such as flying away from the bat when they first hear it, or dropping suddenly to the ground when the bat is upon them. Bats have evolved “quiet” clicks in an attempt to evade the moth’s hearing. Some moths have evolved the ability to respond to the bats’ clicks with their own clicks as a strategy to confuse the bats echolocation abilities.
Each tiny advantage gained by favorable variation gives a species an edge over close competitors, predators, parasites, or even prey. The only method that will allow a coevolving species to keep its own share of the resources is also to continually improve its ability to survive and produce offspring. As one species gains an advantage, other species must also develop an advantage or they will be outcompeted. No single species progresses too far ahead because genetic variation among progeny of sexual reproduction provides all species with a mechanism to produce adapted individuals. Species whose individuals cannot keep up become extinct. The Red Queen’s catchphrase was, “It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place.” This is an apt description of coevolution between competing species.
Sexual reproduction requires fertilization, the union of two cells from two individual organisms. If those two cells each contain one set of chromosomes, then the resulting cell contains two sets of chromosomes. Haploid cells contain one set of chromosomes, diploid cells contain two sets of chromosomes. The number of sets of chromosomes in a cell is called its ploidy level. If the reproductive cycle is to continue, then the diploid cell must somehow reduce its number of chromosome sets before fertilization can occur again, or there will be a continual doubling in the number of chromosome sets in every generation. So, in addition to fertilization, sexual reproduction includes a nuclear division that reduces the number of chromosome sets.
The nuclear division that forms haploid cells, which is called meiosis, is related to mitosis. In mitosis, both the parent and the daughter nuclei are at the same ploidy level—diploid for most plants and animals. Meiosis employs many of the same mechanisms as mitosis. However, the starting nucleus is always diploid and the nuclei that result at the end of a meiotic cell division are haploid. To achieve this reduction in chromosome number, meiosis consists of one round of chromosome duplication and two rounds of nuclear division. Because the events that occur during each of the division stages are analogous to the events of mitosis, the same stage names are assigned. However, because there are two rounds of division, the major process and the stages are designated with a “I” or a “II.” Thus, meiosis I is the first round of meiotic division and consists of prophase I, prometaphase I, and so on. Meiosis II, in which the second round of meiotic division takes place, includes prophase II, prometaphase II, and so on.
Meiosis is preceded by an interphase consisting of the G1, S, and G2 phases, which are nearly identical to the phases preceding mitosis.
Early in prophase I, before the chromosomes can be seen clearly microscopically, homologous chromosomes are attached at their tips to the nuclear envelope by proteins. Homologous chromosomes are similar but not identical chromosomes. For example, chromosome 12 from your mother and chromosome 12 from your father will both be present inside each of your cells. Each chromosome 12 contains the same genes, usually in the same locations, however, each gene can be a different allele. Gene A on chromosome 12 from your mother may be allele R' and gene A on chromosome 12 from your father may be allele r. In species such as humans, even though the X and Y sex chromosomes are not homologous (most of their genes differ), they have a small region of homology that allows the X and Y chromosomes to pair up during prophase I. A partial synaptonemal complex develops only between the regions of homology. It will be very important to understand what homologous chromosomes are when following the process of meiosis.
Two homologous chromsomes are shown prior to DNA replication. Each chromosome has three genes with their locus marked. Homologous chromosomes contain the same genes but are not identical. They each can contain different alleles of each gene.
As the nuclear envelope begins to break down, the proteins associated with homologous chromosomes bring the pair close to each other. The synaptonemal complex, a lattice of proteins between the homologous chromosomes, first forms at specific locations and then spreads to cover the entire length of the chromosomes. The tight pairing of the homologous chromosomes is called synapsis. In synapsis, the genes on the chromatids of the homologous chromosomes are aligned precisely with each other. The synaptonemal complex supports the exchange of chromosomal segments between non-sister homologous chromatids, a process called crossing over. Crossing over can be observed visually after the exchange as chiasmata (singular = chiasma) (see figure below).
Early in prophase I, homologous chromosomes come together to form a synapse. The chromosomes are bound tightly together and in perfect alignment by a protein lattice called a synaptonemal complex and by cohesin proteins at the centromere.
Located at intervals along the synaptonemal complex are large protein assemblies called recombination nodules. These assemblies mark the points of later chiasmata and mediate the multistep process of crossover—or genetic recombination—between the non-sister chromatids. Near the recombination nodule on each chromatid, the double-stranded DNA is cleaved, the cut ends are modified, and a new connection is made between the non-sister chromatids. As prophase I progresses, the synaptonemal complex begins to break down and the chromosomes begin to condense. When the synaptonemal complex is gone, the homologous chromosomes remain attached to each other at the centromere and at chiasmata. The chiasmata remain until anaphase I. The number of chiasmata varies according to the species and the length of the chromosome. There must be at least one chiasma per chromosome for proper separation of homologous chromosomes during meiosis I, but there may be as many as 25. Following crossover, the synaptonemal complex breaks down and the cohesin connection between homologous pairs is also removed. At the end of prophase I, the pairs are held together only at the chiasmata (figure below) and are called tetrads because the four sister chromatids of each pair of homologous chromosomes are now visible.
The crossover events are the first source of genetic variation in the nuclei produced by meiosis. A single crossover event between homologous non-sister chromatids leads to a reciprocal exchange of equivalent DNA between a maternal chromosome and a paternal chromosome. Now, when that sister chromatid is moved into a gamete cell it will carry some DNA from one parent of the individual and some DNA from the other parent. The sister recombinant chromatid has a combination of maternal and paternal genes that did not exist before the crossover. Multiple crossovers in an arm of the chromosome have the same effect, exchanging segments of DNA to create recombinant chromosomes.
Crossover occurs between non-sister chromatids of homologous chromosomes. The result is an exchange of genetic material between homologous chromosomes.
What are the major differences between Prophase I of Meiosis and Prophase of Mitosis?
The key event in prometaphase I is the attachment of the spindle fiber microtubules to the kinetochore proteins at the centromeres. Kinetochore proteins are multiprotein complexes that bind the centromeres of a chromosome to the microtubules of the mitotic spindle. Microtubules grow from centrosomes placed at opposite poles of the cell. The microtubules move toward the middle of the cell and attach to one of the two fused homologous chromosomes. The microtubules attach at each chromosomes' kinetochores. With each member of the homologous pair attached to opposite poles of the cell, in the next phase, the microtubules can pull the homologous pair apart. A spindle fiber that has attached to a kinetochore is called a kinetochore microtubule. At the end of prometaphase I, each tetrad is attached to microtubules from both poles, with one homologous chromosome facing each pole. The homologous chromosomes are still held together at chiasmata. In addition, the nuclear membrane has broken down entirely.
During metaphase I, the homologous chromosomes are arranged in the center of the cell with the kinetochores facing opposite poles. The homologous pairs orient themselves randomly at the equator. For example, if the two homologous members of chromosome 1 are labeled a and b, then the chromosomes could line up a-b, or b-a. This is important in determining the genes carried by a gamete, as each will only receive one of the two homologous chromosomes. This is called Independent Assortment. Recall that homologous chromosomes are not identical, they contain slight differences in their genetic information, causing each gamete to have a unique genetic makeup.
This randomness is the physical basis for the creation of the second form of genetic variation in offspring. Consider that the homologous chromosomes of a sexually reproducing organism are originally inherited as two separate sets, one from each parent. Using humans as an example, one set of 23 chromosomes is present in the egg donated by the mother. The father provides the other set of 23 chromosomes in the sperm that fertilizes the egg. Every cell of the multicellular offspring has copies of the original two sets of homologous chromosomes. In prophase I of meiosis, the homologous chromosomes form the tetrads. In metaphase I, these pairs line up at the midway point between the two poles of the cell to form the metaphase plate. Because there is an equal chance that a microtubule fiber will encounter a maternally or paternally inherited chromosome, the arrangement of the tetrads at the metaphase plate is random. Any maternally inherited chromosome may face either pole. Any paternally inherited chromosome may also face either pole. The orientation of each tetrad is independent of the orientation of the other 22 tetrads.
This event—the random (or independent) assortment of homologous chromosomes at the metaphase plate—is the second mechanism that introduces variation into the gametes or spores. In each cell that undergoes meiosis, the arrangement of the tetrads is different. The number of variations is dependent on the number of chromosomes making up a set. There are two possibilities for orientation at the metaphase plate; the possible number of alignments therefore equals 2n, where n is the number of chromosomes per set. Humans have 23 chromosome pairs, which results in over eight million (223) possible genetically-distinct gametes. This number does not include the variability that was previously created in the sister chromatids by crossover. Given these two mechanisms, it is highly unlikely that any two haploid cells resulting from meiosis will have the same genetic composition (see figure below).
To summarize the genetic consequences of meiosis I, the maternal and paternal genes are recombined by crossover events that occur between each homologous pair during prophase I. In addition, the random assortment of tetrads on the metaphase plate produces a unique combination of maternal and paternal chromosomes that will make their way into the gametes.
Random, independent assortment during metaphase I can be demonstrated by considering a cell with a set of two chromosomes (n = 2). In this case, there are two possible arrangements at the equatorial plane in metaphase I. The total possible number of different gametes is 2n, where n equals the number of chromosomes in a set. In this example, there are four possible genetic combinations for the gametes. With n = 23 in human cells, there are over 8 million possible combinations of paternal and maternal chromosomes.
In anaphase I, the microtubules pull the linked chromosomes apart. The sister chromatids remain tightly bound together at the centromere. The chiasmata are broken in anaphase I as the microtubules attached to the fused kinetochores pull the homologous chromosomes apart.
What major difference occurs in Anaphase I of Meiosis compared to Anaphase of Mitosis?
Telophase I and Cytokinesis
In telophase, the separated chromosomes arrive at opposite poles. The remainder of the typical telophase events may or may not occur, depending on the species. In some organisms, the chromosomes decondense and nuclear envelopes form around the chromatids in telophase I. In other organisms, cytokinesis—the physical separation of the cytoplasmic components into two daughter cells—occurs without reformation of the nuclei. In nearly all species of animals and some fungi, cytokinesis separates the cell contents via a cleavage furrow (constriction of the actin ring that leads to cytoplasmic division). In plants, a cell plate is formed during cell cytokinesis by Golgi vesicles fusing at the metaphase plate. This cell plate will ultimately lead to the formation of cell walls that separate the two daughter cells.
Two haploid cells are the end result of the first meiotic division. The cells are haploid because at each pole, there is just one of each pair of the homologous chromosomes. Therefore, only one full set of the chromosomes is present. This is why the cells are considered haploid—there is only one chromosome set, even though each homolog still consists of two sister chromatids. Recall that sister chromatids are merely duplicates of one of the two homologous chromosomes (except for changes that occurred during crossing over). In meiosis II, these two sister chromatids will separate, creating four haploid daughter cells.
In some species, cells enter a brief interphase, or interkinesis, before entering meiosis II. Interkinesis lacks an S phase, so chromosomes are not duplicated. The two cells produced in meiosis I go through the events of meiosis II in synchrony. During meiosis II, the sister chromatids within the two daughter cells separate, forming four new haploid gametes. The mechanics of meiosis II is similar to mitosis, except that each dividing cell has only one set of homologous chromosomes. Therefore, each cell has half the number of sister chromatids to separate out as a diploid cell undergoing mitosis.
If the chromosomes decondensed in telophase I, they condense again. If nuclear envelopes were formed, they fragment into vesicles. The centrosomes that were duplicated during interkinesis move away from each other toward opposite poles, and new spindles are formed.
The nuclear envelopes are completely broken down, and the spindle is fully formed. Each sister chromatid forms an individual kinetochore that attaches to microtubules from opposite poles.
The sister chromatids are maximally condensed and aligned at the equator of the cell.
The sister chromatids are pulled apart by the kinetochore microtubules and move toward opposite poles. Non-kinetochore microtubules elongate the cell.
The process of chromosome alignment differs between meiosis I and meiosis II. In prometaphase I, microtubules attach to the fused kinetochores of homologous chromosomes, and the homologous chromosomes are arranged at the midpoint of the cell in metaphase I. In anaphase I, the homologous chromosomes are separated. In prometaphase II, microtubules attach to the kinetochores of sister chromatids, and the sister chromatids are arranged at the midpoint of the cells in metaphase II. In anaphase II, the sister chromatids are separated.
Telophase II and Cytokinesis
The chromosomes arrive at opposite poles and begin to decondense. Nuclear envelopes form around the chromosomes. Cytokinesis separates the two cells into four unique haploid cells. At this point, the newly formed nuclei are both haploid. The cells produced are genetically unique because of the random assortment of paternal and maternal homologs and because of the recombining of maternal and paternal segments of chromosomes (with their sets of genes) that occurs during crossover. The entire process of meiosis is outlined in the figure below.
An animal cell with a diploid number of four (2n = 4) proceeds through the stages of meiosis to form four haploid daughter cells.
Comparing Mitosis and Meiosis
Mitosis and meiosis are both forms of division of the nucleus in eukaryotic cells. They share some similarities, but also exhibit distinct differences that lead to very different outcomes. Mitosis is a single nuclear division that results in two nuclei that are usually partitioned into two new cells. The nuclei resulting from a mitotic division are genetically identical to the original nucleus. They have the same number of sets of chromosomes, one set in the case of haploid cells and two sets in the case of diploid cells. In most plants and all animal species, it is typically diploid cells that undergo mitosis to form new diploid cells. In contrast, meiosis consists of two nuclear divisions resulting in four nuclei that are usually partitioned into four new cells. The nuclei resulting from meiosis are not genetically identical and they contain one chromosome set only. This is half the number of chromosome sets in the original cell, which is diploid.
The main differences between mitosis and meiosis occur in meiosis I, which is a very different nuclear division than mitosis. In meiosis I, the homologous chromosome pairs become associated with each other, are bound together with the synaptonemal complex, develop chiasmata and undergo crossover between sister chromatids, and line up along the metaphase plate in tetrads with kinetochore fibers from opposite spindle poles attached to each kinetochore of a homolog in a tetrad. All of these events occur only in meiosis I.
When the chiasmata resolve and the tetrad is broken up with the homologs moving to one pole or another, the ploidy level—the number of sets of chromosomes in each future nucleus—has been reduced from two to one. For this reason, meiosis I is referred to as a reduction division. There is no such reduction in ploidy level during mitosis.
Meiosis II is much more analogous to a mitotic division. In this case, the duplicated chromosomes (only one set of them) line up on the metaphase plate with divided kinetochores attached to kinetochore fibers from opposite poles. During anaphase II, as in mitotic anaphase, the kinetochores divide and one sister chromatid—now referred to as a chromosome—is pulled to one pole while the other sister chromatid is pulled to the other pole. If it were not for the fact that there had been crossover, the two products of each individual meiosis II division would be identical (like in mitosis). Instead, they are different because there has always been at least one crossover per chromosome. Meiosis II is not a reduction division because although there are fewer copies of the genome in the resulting cells, there is still one set of chromosomes, as there was at the end of meiosis I.
Meiosis and mitosis are both preceded by one round of DNA replication; however, meiosis includes two nuclear divisions. The four daughter cells resulting from meiosis are haploid and genetically distinct. The daughter cells resulting from mitosis are diploid and identical to the parent cell.
The Mystery of the Evolution of Meiosis
Some characteristics of organisms are so widespread and fundamental that it is sometimes difficult to remember that they evolved like other simpler traits. Meiosis is such an extraordinarily complex series of cellular events that biologists have had trouble hypothesizing and testing how it may have evolved. Although meiosis is inextricably entwined with sexual reproduction and its advantages and disadvantages, it is important to separate the questions of the evolution of meiosis and the evolution of sex, because early meiosis may have been advantageous for different reasons than it is now. Thinking outside the box and imagining what the early benefits from meiosis might have been is one approach to uncovering how it may have evolved.
Meiosis and mitosis share obvious cellular processes and it makes sense that meiosis evolved from mitosis. The difficulty lies in the clear differences between meiosis I and mitosis. Adam Wilkins and Robin Holliday2 summarized the unique events that needed to occur for the evolution of meiosis from mitosis. These steps are homologous chromosome pairing, crossover exchanges, sister chromatids remaining attached during anaphase, and suppression of DNA replication in interphase. They argue that the first step is the hardest and most important, and that understanding how it evolved would make the evolutionary process clearer. They suggest genetic experiments that might shed light on the evolution of synapsis.
There are other approaches to understanding the evolution of meiosis in progress. Different forms of meiosis exist in single-celled protists. Some appear to be simpler or more “primitive” forms of meiosis. Comparing the meiotic divisions of different protists may shed light on the evolution of meiosis. Marilee Ramesh and colleagues 3 compared the genes involved in meiosis in protists to understand when and where meiosis might have evolved. Although research is still ongoing, recent scholarship into meiosis in protists suggests that some aspects of meiosis may have evolved later than others. This kind of genetic comparison can tell us what aspects of meiosis are the oldest and what cellular processes they may have borrowed from in earlier cells.
Link to Learning
Click through the steps of this interactive animation to compare the meiotic process of cell division to that of mitosis: How Cells Divide.
- Leigh Van Valen, “A new evolutionary law,” Evolutionary Theory 1 (1973): 1–30.
- Adam S. Wilkins and Robin Holliday, “The Evolution of Meiosis from Mitosis,” Genetics 181 (2009): 3–12.
- Marilee A. Ramesh, Shehre-Banoo Malik and John M. Logsdon, Jr, “A Phylogenetic Inventory of Meiotic Genes: Evidence for Sex in Giardia and an Early Eukaryotic Origin of Meiosis,” Current Biology 15 (2005):185–91.