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Selfish genes hide for decades in plain sight of worm geneticists

By poisoning offspring and providing the antidote, the genes spread spookily fast through the population

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3:13pm, May 11, 2017
C. elegans nematode

MOMMIE DEAREST  Covertly poisoning offspring appears to be a common part of motherhood in the C. elegans nematode (shown) that stars in biology labs worldwide.

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A strain of wild Hawaiian worms has helped unmask long-studied genes as just plain selfish. The scammers beat the usual odds of inheritance and spread extra fast by making mother worms poison some of their offspring.

Biologists have for decades discussed how two genes in the familiar lab nematode Caenorhabditis elegans might help embryos build their organs. Working with a little-studied wild strain, however, caused a rethink of the genes’ supposedly beneficial role “that flipped it on its head,” says UCLA geneticist Leonid Kruglyak.

Instead of doing some body sculpting, the gene sup-35 doses the eggs with a toxin that will kill them after fertilization, two postdocs in the Kruglyak lab discovered. The toxin gene doesn’t poison itself out of the gene pool because it’s linked to a partner, pha-1, that lets embryos manufacture an antidote. Embryos die unless they inherit a

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