Geneticists discover genes that make fruit fly hybrids sterile

Dec 11, 2006

While hybrids -- the result of the mating of two different species -- may offer interesting and beneficial traits, they are usually sterile or unable to survive. For example, a mule, the result of the mating of a horse and a donkey, is sterile.

Now, Cornell researchers have made the first identification of a pair of genes in any species that are responsible for problems unique to hybrids. Specifically, the researchers have found two genes from two fruit fly species (Drosophila melanogaster and D. simulans) that interfere with each other, thereby preventing the production of male offspring.

The finding may eventually shed light on what causes lethality or sterility in hybrids in general and, in a larger sense, offers clues to how species evolve from common ancestors.

The research, published in the Nov. 24 issue of Science, focuses on a rarely occurring mutation in a D. melanogaster gene called "Hmr" (Hybrid male rescue) and a similar mutation in a D. simulans gene called "Lhr" (Lethal hybrid rescue) that make these genes nonfunctional. When either of these genes is "turned off" and then crossed with the other fruit fly species, the males survive.

"We have found the first example of two genes that interact to cause lethality in a species hybrid," said the paper's senior author, Daniel Barbash, assistant professor in Cornell's Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

The finding supports the Dobzhansky-Muller model, a theory from the 1930s that suggests hybrid incompatibilities (such as death or sterility) are caused by genes that have evolved from a common ancestor but diverged in each of the species. More specifically, in the common ancestor, these genes may have worked perfectly well together. But, as each gene evolved in its own species, it began to code for proteins that no longer work in the other species.

In this case, when genes from each species were compared with each other, the Hmr gene in D. melanogaster and the Lhr gene in D. simulans each evolved much faster than most other genes and diverged due to natural selection, a genetic change due to a pressure that benefits the survival of a species. The researchers would like to learn what these genes normally do within their species in order to understand why they are evolving so fast.

The Dobzhansky-Muller model also proposes that these evolved genes depend on each other to cause hybrid incompatibilities.

However, when Barbash and his colleagues cloned each gene and inserted an Lhr gene from D. simulans into D. melanogaster, the two genes did not interfere with each other in the engineered D. melanogaster strain even though the Lhr and Hmr genes interfere with each other in hybrids.

"This tells us there must be other things involved in the hybrid" that impacts the incompatible pairing of these genes, said Barbash. In future work the researchers hope to determine whether the hybrids die because of additional genes like Hmr and Lhr, or because of more subtle differences between the chromosomes of these two species.

Source: Cornell University

Explore further: Genes may help explain why some people are naturally more interested in music than others

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Life on Earth still favours evolution over creationism

21 hours ago

Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, first published in 1859, offered a bold new explanation for how animals and plants diversified and still serves as the foundation underpinning all medical and biological ...

Researchers discover new producer of crucial vitamin

15 hours ago

(Phys.org) —New research has determined that a single group of micro-organisms may be responsible for much of the world's vitamin B12 production in the oceans, with implications for the global carbon cycle and climate change.

Recommended for you

Gene variant that dramatically reduces 'bad' lipids

13 hours ago

In the first study to emerge from the UK10K Project's cohort of samples from the general public, scientists have identified a rare genetic variant that dramatically reduces levels of certain types of lipids in the blood. ...

New diagnostic method identifies genetic diseases

15 hours ago

People with genetic diseases often have to embark on an odyssey from one doctor to the next. Fewer than half of all patients who are suspected of having a genetic disease actually receive a satisfactory diagnosis. Scientists ...

User comments : 0