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Pinning down meiosis: sperm, mainly

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the reassortment of DNA during meiosis 1

Canto: Not very long ago I was reading Carl Zimmer’s book She has her mother’s laugh, and he was explaining meiosis. It was exciting, because I think I understood it. Being a regular science reader I’d read about meiosis and mitosis before but I could never remember, or perhaps I never clearly knew, the difference. But this time was different, and I thought ‘Yes!’, or maybe ‘Eureka!’ sounds better, because not only did I get it, or thought I did, but I thought ‘this is a new weapon against those who say they don’t believe in evolution’. There’s a fellow-teacher at my college who actually says this, but I’ve never really confronted her on it, apart from some mutterings.

Jacinta: So please explain yourself. Meiosis and mitosis are about cell division aren’t they?

Canto: Well I can’t explain myself, but at the time I thought ‘here’a new one-word response to those who say they don’t believe in evolution’. The other one-word responses being ‘genes’, ‘genetics’, ‘genomics’ and other variants. Well okay, I can give a partial explanation. Most everyone believes in evolution, that’s why they use smart phones rather than the earlier types of mobile phones or landlines or whatever. That’s why they use dishwashers and modern washing machines and modern computers, and drive modern cars instead of a horse-and-carriage, because evolution just means progressive development. What my fellow-teacher really should be saying is she doesn’t believe in the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection from random variation, but she doesn’t say that because I strongly suspect she doesn’t have a clue what that means.

Jacinta: Right, so she doesn’t believe in the particular theory…

Canto: Which is proven by genes, the essential mechanism of random variation, which of course Darwin was completely unaware of. And by meiosis, another essential source of variety.

Jacinta: So, meiosis. It’s quite complex. Zimmer gives a brief explanation as you say, and there’s also a number of videos, from Khan Academy, Crash Course Biology and others, so let’s try to describe it for ourselves, with emphasis on variety or variation, which is the essential thing.

Canto: Mitosis, and hopefully I now will never forget this, is the cell division and replication that goes on in our bodies at every moment, and which enables us to grow from a foetus to a strapping lad or lassie, to heal wounds and even to have multiple times more neurons than old fatty Frump, maybe. It occurs among the somatic cells, and it essentially does it by replicating cells exactly, like replacing or adding to like.

Jacinta: But not exactly, otherwise we’d just be a growing blob of undifferentiated body cells, not liver, brain, blood, skin and other cells. That takes epigenetics, as I recall. Mitotically-created cells are identical as to chromosomes, but not as to expression. But anyway, meiosis. That’s how our germ cells are replicated.

Canto: Egg and sperm cells, together known as gametes. Khan Academy begins its article on meiosis with this:

meiosis in humans is a division process that takes us from a diploid cell—one with two sets of chromosomes—to haploid cells—ones with a single set of chromosomes. In humans, the haploid cells made in meiosis are sperm and eggs. When a sperm and an egg join in fertilization, the two haploid sets of chromosomes form a complete diploid set: a new genome.

All fine, though this division process is damn complicated as we’ll discover. But what interested me in Zimmer’s account was this, and I’ll quote it at length, because it’s what got me excited about variation:

In men, meiosis takes place within a labyrinth of tubes coiled within the testicles. The tube walls are lined with sperm precursor cells, each carrying two copies of each chromosome, one from the man’s mother, the other from his father. When these cells divide, they copy all their DNA, so that now they have four copies of each chromosome. Rather than drawing apart from each other, however, the chromosomes stay together. A maternal and paternal copy of each chromosome line up alongside each other. Proteins descend on them and slice the chromosomes, making cuts at precisely the same spots.

As the cells repair these self inflicted wounds, a remarkable exchange can take place. A piece of DNA from one chromosome may get moved to the same position in the other, its own place taken by its counterpart. This molecular surgery cannot be rushed. All told, a cell may need three weeks to finish meiosis. Once it’s done, its chromosomes pull away from each other. The cell then divides twice, to make four new sperm cells. Each of the four cells inherits a single copy of all 23 chromosomes. But each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA.

Think of this last line – each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA.

Jacinta: Yes, and there can be up to a billion sperm cells released in each ejaculate, but who’s counting? And are they all different?

Canto: Apparently so. Even the Daily Mail says so, so it must be true. And when you think of it, if there weren’t differences, each offspring born from that man’s sperm would be a clone…

Jacinta: Not necessarily – what about the egg cells?

Canto: Yes, I believe it’s the same meiosis process with them, though not quite. Anyway, there’s the same mixing of chromosomes, so the chances of any two egg cells, or I should say their chromosomal complement, being identical is extremely small.

Jacinta: So, meiosis – I’ve been trying to pin it all down, but I don’t feel I’ve succeeded. Here goes, anyway. Meiosis is a special type of reproduction, confined only to our germ cells, the sperm and egg cells. The gametes. The haploid cells. As opposed to the diploid cells which make up all the somatic or body cells we have. That’s to say, those cells reproduce differently from diploid, somatic cells. But before I try to explain the complex process of their reproduction, what about their production? Where do these haploid cells come from? Now I might answer glibly that the egg cells, also called oocytes, come from the ovaries, and the spermatozoa come from the testes, but that’s not really my question.

Canto: In fact I’m not even sure if you’ve got it right so far. The egg cell is called an ovum. An oocyte is a precursor egg cell I think. I’m not sure if it matters much, but we’re looking at the production of these gametes. Presumably the kinds of gametes we produce depends on our gender, which is determined at conception? Of course, in these gender-bending days, who knows.

Jacinta: Oh dear. Let’s try not to get confused. Assume an embryo or foetus is straightforwardly male or female, or potentially so. I seem to recall that males only start producing sperm at puberty, whereas females produce all their egg cells before that, and only have a fixed number, and egg cells are quite huge in comparison to sperm, and even compared to your average somatic cells – though some neurons have super-long axons. When females reach the stage of menstruation, that’s when they start releasing eggs.

Canto: Okay in the above quote from Zimmer, sperm precursor cells are mentioned. They’re also called spermatocytes, and the labyrinth of coiled tubes he also mentions are the seminiferous tubules. This is where the meiosis happens, in males. There are two types of spermatocyte, primary and secondary. The primary spermatocytes are diploid, and the secondary, formed after the first meiosis process (meiosis 1), are haploid.

Jacinta: To possibly confuse matters further, there’s a multi-stage process happening in those seminiferous tubules, a process called spermatogenesis. It starts with the spermatogonia (and maybe we’ll leave the spermatogonium’s existence for another post), which are processed into primary spermatocytes, then into secondary spermatocytes, then into spermatids, then to sperm.

Canto: Yes, so the first step you mention is mitotic, with diploid cells creating diploid cells, the primary spermatocytes…

Jacinta: And mitosis has those four steps or phases – PMAT, as students recall it; prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase, while meiosis has the same but in two parts, PMAT for meiosis 1 and PMAT for meiosis 2. So as we’ve already pointed out, this double-doubling process has a final result of four new cells. Now, before meiosis 1, the cells go through interphase, but I won’t detail that here. In prophase 1, chromosomes are brought together in pairs, called homologues. Their alleles are aligned together, but then this more or less random ‘crossing over’ occurs, presumably with the aid of some busy little proteins, which mixes the chromosomes up. Each homologue pair can have many of these crossovers. More mixing happens during metaphase 1, when homologue pairs, with their crossings-over, line up randomly at the metaphase plate. I’m not pretending to fully understand all this, but the main point is that the variety we find in the final product, the sperm cells, is brought about essentially during prophase and metaphase in meiosis 1 of the double cycle.

Canto: It does get me more interested in understanding meiosis more fundamentally though, as well as mitosis. The phases and the processes that bring them about, the proteins, the chromatin, the centromeres, the metaphase plate, and of course oogenesis, polar bodies and much much more.

Jacinta: Yes – I think meiosis does point to a lot of the variation in the world of organisms, but it would be hard to get those who ‘don’t believe in evolution’ to think about this and its relevance. They tend not to listen to explanations or to want to make connections.

Canto: You can give up on them or keep plugging away with the ‘what about this?’ or ‘can you explain that?’ Or demonstrate to them directly or indirectly, the results of those powerful explanations, in medicine, in astronomy, in our technology, and in our human relations.

References

She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, by Carl Zimmer, 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiosis

https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/cellular-molecular-biology/meiosis/a/phases-of-meiosis

https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-meiosis#:~:text=Meiosis%20is%20a%20process%20where,to%20form%20four%20daughter%20cells.

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 9:18 pm