Seven-Sexed Microbe, Tetrahymena, Spotlighted In New Research

03/27/2013 01:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 27, 2013

By Beth Skwarecki

If you thought the battle of the genders was complicated, try having seven sexes. When Tetrahymena, a single-celled creature covered in cilia, mates, the offspring isn't necessarily the same sex as either parent—it can be any of seven.

Now, researchers have figured out the complex dance of DNA that determines the offspring's sex, and it's a random selection, they report today in PLOS Biology. Each Tetrahymena has a gene for its own sex—or mating type—in its regular nucleus, but it also carries a second nucleus used only for reproduction. This "germline nucleus" contains incomplete versions of all seven mating type genes, which are cut and pasted together until one complete gene remains and the other six have been deleted.

The newly rearranged DNA becomes part of the offspring's regular nucleus, determining its mating type. Because the mating type gene helps Tetrahymena recognize others of a different sex, the researchers say that the finding could shed light on how other cells, including those in humans, recognize those that are different from themselves.

ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science

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