Parthenogenesis: now in snakes!

So, as if my friends on the religious right needed more reasons to be afraid of snakes, now they are threatening to undermine the nuclear family, which is clearly defined in the Bible as a mommy, a daddy, and two overachieving children. A recent paper in Biology Letters has studied two litters of offspring from a female Boa constrictor, totaling 22 baby snakes. All of the babies are female, and all of them have a rare, recessive color trait that is exhibited by the mother, but by none of the possible fathers.

What the researchers were able to demonstrate was that these baby snakes do not have a father at all. Rather, they are all parthenogenetic products of the mother. The researchers typed the offspring at eight microsatellite loci, and all the daughters were homozygous at all of the loci, matching in each case one of the two maternal alleles.

Note to self: No Boa constrictors on the island!

Several interesting things here. First, the implication is that these daughters are genome-wide homozygotes. This suggests a complete absence of lethal recessive mutations in the mother’s genome. This seems surprising, but let’s do a quick back of the envelope calculation. Let’s assume there are about 10,000 genes in the snake where a loss-of-function mutation is lethal. Say the coding region for each gene is about 1000 nucleotides long, and that, say 1/10 of those nucleotides are fixed, in the sense that a mutation obliterates the gene’s function. That would be a lethal mutational target of 100 nucleotides for each gene. Assuming a mutation rate of 10-9, mutation-selection balance at each locus would have loss-of-function mutations circulating at a frequency of about 1 in 3000. So, we would expect each maternal half-genome to contain, on average, about 3 lethal recessive mutations. Assuming that those mutations are Poisson distributed, there is about a 5% chance that it would contain no such mutations. So, not super likely, but not out of the question either. And, that probability would be higher if the mutational target is smaller, or if the Boa population has undergone significant inbreeding, which would have driven the frequency down.

Second, there’s a weirdness with the sex chromosomes. Now, in mammals, sex is determined by whether you have two X chromosomes, in which case you are a female, or an X chromosome and a Y chromosome, in which case you are a male. Everyone inherits an X chromosome from their mother, and you inherit either an X or a Y from your father. So, if you don’t have any sons, it’s not your wife’s fault. Snakes also have chromosomal sex determination, but use a ZW system. Males have two Z chromosomes, while females have a W and a Z. It turns out that every one of the parthenogenetic daughter snakes is actually WW. That’s some serious weirdness on which I have little insight. The one thing we can say is that you would never see a YY male. The Y chromosome is a shriveled little thing that does not do much other than tell you to be male, while the X does all the work. The snake W chromosome, on the other hand, is a real chromosome, that is, in fact, impossible to distinguish from the Z under the microscope.

Finally – and this is the reason I’m writing about this here – this tells us something about genomic imprinting. In mammals, there appear to be at least 50-100, possibly as many as 1000 imprinted genes, which are expressed from only one of the two copies. So, if there are 200 imprinted genes, there will be, say, 100 of them that are expressed only from the paternally inherited copy. If you produce parthenogenetic offspring, they will inherit two maternally derived alleles at each of these loci, which will be like having 100 of your genes knocked out, and is almost guaranteed to be lethal. In fact there are a number of genetic disorders in humans that result from uniparental inheritance of just a small subset of imprinted genes, and these produce fairly severe phenotypes. So, the fact that these parthenogenetic snakes appear to be perfectly viable implies that there are few – or quite possibly no – imprinted genes in this species.

Booth, W., Johnson, D., Moore, S., Schal, C., & Vargo, E. (2010). Evidence for viable, non-clonal but fatherless Boa constrictors Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0793

Update: Two follow-up posts here and here.

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