Selfish elements turn embryos into a battlefield

Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences,  Phys Org,  2021.

The battle to survive is fought down to the level of our genes. Toxin-antidote elements are gene pairs that spread in populations by killing non-carriers. Now, research by the Burga lab at IMBA and the Kruglyak lab at the University of California, Los Angeles shows that these elements are more common in nature than first thought and have evolved a wide range of mechanisms to force their inheritance and propagate in populations—a parasite within the genome. The results are published in the journal Current Biology. Originally described in the model nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, toxin-antidote elements consist of two linked genes, a toxin and its antidote. While the toxin is loaded into eggs by mothers, only embryos that inherit the element express the antidote. Thus, the offspring must inherit the element to survive. In this way, toxin-antidote pairs promote their own survival and spread in the population. This comes at great expense of their host’s fitness—a quarter of their progeny, those that don’t inherit the element, fall prey to the toxin.

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