Sex is how most animals reproduce, so you might wonder why some scientists are using a tiny asexual animal to study it. In an article published last winter at Quanta, Emily Singer explains that the way bdelloid rotifers manage their genes has scientists asking what the term “sex” really means.

From the article:

A recent analysis of the bdelloid genome has begun to reveal how asexual mechanisms can mimic the DNA swapping characteristic of sex, perhaps even surpassing it in effectiveness. The new work has shown bdelloids to be so good at generating genetic diversity that some researchers now question the very definition of sex, with some arguing for a more expansive one that doesn’t require the orchestrated swapping of genetic material. Others think that even if the traditional definition of sex remains intact, the unique genetic strategies of the bdelloid rotifer will illuminate the mechanisms that make sex such a successful evolutionary strategy. “If we can figure out the problem that bdelloids solved,” said Mark Welch, who has been studying rotifers since the 1980s, “we can figure out why sex is important.”

When I first learned about bdelloid rotifers back in college, they were a bit of an oddball curiosity. This work suggests they may—like so much oddball science—be a route to answering some truly fundamental questions.

Read the rest at Quanta.

Contact the author at Image: “Bdelloid” by Diego Fontaneto - Who Needs Sex (or Males) Anyway? Gross, L. PLoS Biology Vol. 5, No. 4, e99 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050099 via Wikimedia Commons - | CC BY 2.5.