Saturday, April 23, 2016

From the genetics of dog breeds to stress and reproduction

The other morning I was talking to my husband in bed in an attempt to help him wake up.

Me: So I ran into our friend who walks those three goldens separately yesterday and we had a nice conversation. She said she’d read my blog and had a dog genetics question for me.

Him: mmmppphh

Me: She said she’d heard that 1% of dog genes account for all the differences between breeds and asked me if it was true. I pointed out that 1% of 20,000 is still a lot of genes, and also explained that it's really hard to use statistics like that to describe genomic differences, because you can measure those differences in so many different ways.

Him: Did you tell her that humans and chips are 98% similar genetically?

Me: Yes I did.

Him: But I’ve been seeing that for at least 10, maybe 20 years. Is it still true?

I consulted the internet on my phone.

Me: Let's see... The Smithsonian Institute says we're 1.2% different from them. I think I'll skip this link to the Institute for Creation Research -- is that really the second hit on “human chimp genetic similarity”?! Ah, Wikipedia gives more information: “The alignable sequences within genomes of humans and chimpanzees differ by about 35 million single-nucleotide substitutions. Additionally about 3% of the complete genomes differ by deletions, insertions and duplications. Since mutation rate is relatively constant, roughly one half of these changes occurred in the human lineage.” Well, that’s not true.

Him: What?

Me: Mutation rate isn’t constant.

Him: It’s not?

Me: Well it is closer to constant in specific areas, like parts of the mitochondrial DNA, which we like to use as clocks. But over the whole genome, which is what they're talking about here, no. Different areas evolve at different rates. There are hotspots that go faster. And then the whole species might change faster when its environment suddenly changes. Like if you're in a lovely sunny valley and you're well adapted to it and then suddenly an Ice Age starts and your valley fills with ice and you suddenly have intense selection pressure to change your coat length and thickness and your diet and things like that. The stress itself can change your mutation rate.

Him: Stress can’t change your mutation rate! How would that even work? If a female is stressed, it’s too late, her eggs are already made.

Me: Her grandkids then? Or only sperm have more mutations? Hmm, that’s good point.

I consult the internet again. I find and discard an article about yeast evolving more quickly under stressful conditions. Yeast don't make eggs or sperm as part of their reproductive process.

Me: Here you go. Flies. Close enough to mammals for you? Stress does cause flies to have offspring with more mutations. It makes sense because if you’re stressed, it means you're probably not well adapted to your environment, so you should do the random shuffle with your kids’ genetics in the hopes that something, anything, different will give them a better shot. Mostly they’ll be worse off, but at that point it’s worth if it a few are better off and can pass on those genes.

Him: But how does it work with female flies having already made their eggs before they’re stressed?

Me: I dunno... Hang on... Here we are. OK, so the researchers mutated the males, their sperm.

The reason the researchers mutated the males has to do with how DNA is fixed in male and female fruit flies. There is almost no DNA repair in sperm. But the egg can repair DNA in any sperm that fertilizes it.

So the researchers were basically asking how much of the mutated DNA from the male could slip through the repair processes in the egg. The answer was that eggs from stressed females let a lot more mutations through.

Why would stressed female eggs not fix DNA as well? Probably because fixing DNA perfectly costs lots of energy. And these stressed females may not have had enough energy to spare.

There are two different kinds of DNA repair out there. The one that fixes the DNA perfectly costs a lot of energy. The other kind gets rid of any gross problems but leaves errors behind. This costs less energy but leads to more mutations.

The idea is that stressed females can't afford to use the perfect DNA repair system. So they use the other one. Their kids survive but they have more mutations.

—Stanford at the Tech, Understanding Genetics
 Me: Oh crap now I’m late to take Jack to physical therapy.

...Kind of makes you wonder about puppies conceived in puppy mills or animals conceived in hoarding situations, doesn’t it? Might they have more mutations than animals conceived in less stressful environments?