Who Needs Sex

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March 17, 2006

Sex didn't always exist. There are plenty of organisms that do quite well without it even now, at least on the unicellular level, reproducing by splitting themselves in half with no muss, no fuss, and no costly dinner-and-a-movie dates. The process is called fission and it couldn't be simpler. Cells in our body do it all the time.

In fact, looked at biologically, sex is a lot of bother. First you've got to have male and female, then you've got to have specialized cells called gametes (sperm and egg), then the male and the female have to find each other and get the sperm on the egg, and all that. It's so much trouble, in fact, that biologists have wondered for a long time why nature even invented it. What good does it do? Why don't all organisms just clone themselves? Each would be a little replica of the parent, and you could avoid that awkward silence afterwards.

The usual answer is that sex mixes genes from the father and mother and so brings about more changes and variation faster than fission would, and so helps drive evolution. But it turns out the rate of mutation is just as fast in cells that do it solo as it is in those who share genes, so that can't be it.

New research now suggests that, rather than help genetic material mix, sex helps it stay clean. An article in World Science reports that the shuffling of material that occurs during sexual reproduction helps isolate and get rid of unhealthy genetic material, keeping the genetic line pure and making sure only fit individuals survive, kind of like separating the wheat from the chaff.

Think about that the next time you're looking for a date.

Posted by rabbit at March 17, 2006 4:48 AM

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