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Scientists discover a way to induce virgin births in female fruit flies


By Dorcas Marfo, Writer

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    Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) — Scientists have discovered a way to induce virgin births in female fruit flies that usually reproduces sexually — and the ability can be passed down generations, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge shared the findings in a study published in the peer-reviewed Current Biology journal on Friday.

The scientists say they were able to genetically manipulate females of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster species to produce offspring without sexual reproduction with their male counterparts.

The study reveals that virgin births can be passed through generations of female fruit flies — a mechanism to help this species survive from a one-off generation of virgin births.

“We’re the first to show that you can engineer virgin births to happen in an animal – it was very exciting to see a virgin fly produce an embryo able to develop to adulthood, and then repeat the process,” Alexis Sperling, first author and researcher at the University of Cambridge, said in a news release Friday.

The researchers say they sequenced the genomes of two strains of another species of fruit fly called Drosophila mercatorum. One strain needed males to sexually reproduce, while the other reproduced by virgin birth.

Researchers identified the genes that were switched on and off during the reproduction process. When identifying the virgin birth strain in the fruit fly’s genes, scientists altered what they thought were the corresponding genes in the model fruit fly — scientifically known as drosophila melanogaster — that lead to virgin birth.

“In our genetically manipulated flies, the females waited to find a male for half their lives — about 40 days — but then gave up and proceeded to have a virgin birth,” said Sperling.

According to the study, only one to two per cent of the second generation of female flies with the ability to virgin birth produced offspring when no male flies were around. When male flies were available, females mated and reproduced sexually.

The offspring of a virgin birth are not exact clones of their mother, but are genetically very similar and are always female, the study notes.

The research involved more than 220,000 virgin fruit flies and took six years to complete.

Researchers note that flies’ genes have been well researched for more than 100 years, making this discovery a success.

Often only overserved in zoo animals, virgin births in animals that normally sexually reproduce are rare and occur when the female has been isolated for a long period of time with no hope of finding a mate.

“If there’s continued selection pressure for virgin births in insect pests, which there seems to be, it will eventually lead to them reproducing only in this way,” said Sterling.

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