I’ve just read the article on the parthenogenetic Komodo dragons in Nature, and it’s very cool. They’ve analyzed the genetics of the eggs that have failed to develop (the remainder are expected to hatch in January) and determined that they were definitely produced without the aid of a male.
We analysed the parentage of the eggs and offspring by genetic fingerprinting. In the clutches of both females, we found that all offspring produced in the absence of males were parthenogens: the overall combined clutch genotype reconstructed that of their mother exactly. Although all offspring were homozygous at all loci, they were not identical clones. Parthenogenesis was therefore confirmed by exclusion (clutches had different alleles from potential fathers) and by the fact that the probability of obtaining a clutch of homozygous individuals after sexual reproduction was very low (P<<0.0001). Sungai’s resumption of sexual reproduction confirmed that parthenogenesis was not a fixed reproductive trait (that is, it is facultative) and that asexual reproduction is likely to occur only when necessary.
That line about “all offspring were homozygous at all loci, they were not identical clones” might need a little more explanation. Mama Dragon is heterozygous at some loci, but the meiotic mechanism that produces a diploid egg means that one cleavage (most likely the second meiotic cleavage) was suppressed, so both homologous chromosomes in the resultant ovum were derived from the same replicated DNA strand. They are not clones of the mother, because they are all homozygous while she was heterozygous; they are not identical, because which of each of the paired homologous chromosomes was passed on to an individual is random.
(I’m a little confused by the statement that they offspring are homozygous at all loci, though; that would imply that there was no crossing over at all in meiosis I, which doesn’t sound right. There ought to be reduced heterozygosity but not complete homozygosity, unless reptiles are weirder than I thought.)
The other useful snippet of information is that sex determination in these reptiles is of the WW/WZ type, where the females are the heterogametic sex. Since all of the progeny of parthenogenesis are homozygous, they are all of the homogametic genotype, and therefore male.
Parthenogenesis can also bias the sex ratio: in Varanus species, females have dissimilar chromosomes (Z and W), whereas the combination ZZ produces males10, so the parthenogenetic mechanism can produce only homozygous (ZZ or WW) individuals and therefore no females.
This has theological implications, obviously. We can now understand how a female could give rise to a male by parthenogenesis: Mary Mother of God must have been a heterogametic reptoid. David Icke will be so pleased.
Watts PC, Buley KR, Sanderson S, Boardman W, Ciofi C, Gibson R (2006) Parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. Nature 444:1021-1022.