United Kingdom: A new study has discovered a way to induce female fruit flies to give birth to offspring in the absence of males, marking the first ‘virgin birth’ in an animal.
The research, published in the journal Current Biology, was conducted over six years and used 220,000 flies.
“We are the first to show that you can engineer virgin births to happen in an animal. It was very exciting to see a virgin fly produce an embryo able to develop to adulthood and then repeat the process,” Dr. Alexis Sperling, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and first author of the paper outlining the study, commented.
The researchers first looked at a species of fruit fly called Drosophila mercatorum and its ability to reproduce through virgin births, or parthenogenesis.
The researchers sequenced the fly’s genome and identified the gene responsible for virgin birth, then altered that gene in another species of fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, in order to activate the process of virgin birth. The genetically manipulated female flies waited for about 40 days in search of a male to reproduce with, but if none were found, they underwent virgin birth. The offspring of these modified flies could reproduce either by mating with males or through virgin births.
Dr. Sperling noted that switching to virgin birth could be highly beneficial for the species and serve as a reproductive backup for isolated females.
However, the researcher also remarked that there was a potential negative, as virgin births might reduce the species ability to adapt to environmental pressures.
According to Dr. Sperling, while the new research has found a way to “switch on” virgin births in fruit flies, it is unlikely the approach would work in mammals.