Today’s Top Science Headline: Mutant Creature Bringing Devastation to Earth’s Ecosystems –“All-Female Species Cloning Itself”

 
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It sounds like a bad monster movie plot: A 10-legged mutant creature that reproduces asexually, escapes from confinement in Germany, and quietly begins a global invasion. Within 2 decades, clones of the voracious animal spread through Europe and Africa, bringing devastation to ecosystems and threatening native species.


Its unusual evolution could also suggest a strategy to tackle a more infamous clonal monster: cancer. “In many ways, the invasive expansion of [the marbled crayfish] is analogous to a cancerous lineage spreading asexually at the expense of its host,” says Jean-François Flot, an evolutionary genomicist at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium who was not involved with the work.

 

That appears to be the strange-but-true story of the marbled crayfish, an invasive freshwater species suspected to have been created through a reproductive accident in an aquarium around 1995 reports today's Science. A new analysis of the crustacean’s genome supports this unlikely origin and may help explain how the animal has subsequently spread and adapted to so many new environments.

 

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The marbled crayfish is the only crustacean that reproduces asexually, with the all-female species making clones of itself from eggs unfertilized by sperm. It has been thought to have arisen when two slough crayfish, imported from Florida for the aquarium trade in Germany, mated.

Since its discovery in 1995 in Germany, the marbled crayfish has spread across Europe and into Africa in huge numbers. “They eat anything—rotten leaves, snails or fish broods, small fish, small insects," says Frank Lyko, a molecular geneticist at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. “This crayfish is a serious pest,” adds Gerhard Scholtz, an evolutionary biologist at Humboldt University in Berlin, who has tracked its rapid spread across the globe, including Madagascar, where its success threatens the existence of the seven crayfish native to that island country. The European Union banned the species: It must not be sold, kept, distributed, or released to the wild.

Five years ago, Lyko became interested in the marbled crayfish, now called Procambarus virginalis, because he thought its newly evolved asexual nature might parallel how a normal cell turns cancerous and begins generating clones of itself. In particular, he wanted to study the genomes of marbled crayfish to uncover basic mechanisms underlying epigenetics, the binding of molecules to DNA that can drive tumor growth and help cancer spread.

So, Lyko and his colleagues sequenced genomes of about a dozen marbled crayfish from different parts of the world and performed less detailed genetic analyses of two dozen more from across Madagascar. At 3.5 billion DNA bases in length, the crustacean’s genome is bigger than the human genome (image below), but contains about the same number of genes, 21,000, they report today in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

This is the first genome of a decapod, a group of 10-legged crustaceans that includes shrimp, lobsters, prawns, and crabs, as well as crayfish. “This [work] opens the way for comparative genomics and identification of [unique features] in this group of ecological and economically important species,” says Etienne Danchin, an evolutionary biologist at the National Institute of Agricultural Research in Sophia-Antipolis, France, who was not involved with the research.

The study also “provides clues about how this genome arose and may help conservationists better track the spread of this invasive species,” Shotz says.

Continue reading…

 Mutation Image top of page: Slidesharecdn.com  

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