A group of researchers was able to successfully engineer “virgin birth” in fruit flies.
Asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, is common in nature, but had never been engineered.
The research establishes a genetic basis for asexual reproduction, and could help with pest control.
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Scientists say they have created “virgin births” in female fruit flies for the first time.
Researchers were able to identify a gene that allowed the insects to reproduce without sperm from a father.
“We’re the first to show that you can engineer virgin births to happen in an animal,” said Dr. Alexis Sperling, a researcher at the University of Cambridge who was involved in the study.
“It was very exciting to see a virgin fly produce an embryo able to develop to adulthood, and then repeat the process.”
Switching ‘on’ the right genes
Virgin births, known as facultative parthenogenesis, have been seen before in bees, ants, lizards, snakes, fish, and birds. The offspring of a virgin birth are always female and genetically very similar to their mothers.
The researchers first sequenced the genome of one species of fruit fly, Drosophila mercatorum, which has the ability to reproduce both sexually and through parthenogenesis.
This species was then compared to another that cannot reproduce without mating, the Drosophila melanogaster.
After noting which genes were potentially responsible for the parthenogenesis, the researchers changed the genetic composition of the Drosophila melanogaster, in different combinations, to match that of the Drosophila mercatorum.
At the end of a six-year research period, about 11% of the genetically engineered flies were able to successfully reproduce without a male partner.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sperling told the Washington Post. “We saw the development of the embryos, and they looked pretty sketchy, but eventually they kind of sorted out and developed into adult flies.”
A backup for isolated females
The experiment was conducted on fruit flies because they are model organisms, or simple non-human species that are usually studied to better understand biology.
“Fruit flies are incredibly special because they are basically the first model organism and have been studied for over 100 years,” Sperling told the Post.
Hannah Maude, a researcher at Imperial College London, told The Times the same process wouldn’t allow humans to ever reproduce without a man.
“Our diversity protects us: having two copies of the DNA not only provides a backup for harmful DNA variants found in every person but is necessary for so-called imprinted regions, which are specifically active from the maternal or paternal DNA copy,” she said.
Virgin births could help certain species and act as a “backup” for isolated females, according to The Guardian.
But understanding parthenogenesis could help with the control of insect populations, the paper notes.
For example, Sperling told Nature, a type of moth in the UK turned to parthenogenesis when the use of pesticides hindered the reproductive capabilities of males.
Figuring out which pest-control methods trigger parthenogenesis in insects could help keep them under control.
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