Scientists have found a way to switch on the ability of one tiny species to have virgin births or parthenogenesis. The species is the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. It’s the first time scientists have induced the ability in an animal that normally reproduces sexually.
After sequencing the genome of another type of fruit fly that could already reproduce without males, they identified three genes involved with virgin births. Then, they changed the corresponding genes in their relatives, the common fruit flies. After an exhaustive study of 220,000 flies over six years, they concluded that inducing virgin births in the insects was successful.
After giving birth through parthenogenesis, a small number of the offspring could also give birth that way if male flies weren’t available. Then, the trait passed down through successive generations.
“When parthenogenesis occurs, the offspring are always female. And while their genes are similar to their mother’s, they are not exact clones,” reported the Washington Post.
Life Finds a Way
Before this study, the genes involved in virgin births had been a mystery. The ability in insects may have evolved due to human pesticide use as a last resort to produce offspring when no males have survived. Now, it’s clear that it’s possible to induce the ability through artificial means, too.
“Life finds a way,” as Dr. Malcolm says in Jurassic Park when the scientists say all the dinosaurs are females and thus can’t breed.
“You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will breed,” says the scientist.
“No, I’m simply saying that life…uh…finds a way,” responds Malcolm.
Movie clip from Rotten Tomatoes:
Can Scientists Induce Virgin Births in Mammals?
The obvious question is, “Can scientists induce virgin births in other animals or even people?” As for humans, probably not. As the Guardian wrote, “The method is unlikely to work in humans.”
While human virgin birth is theoretically possible, the odds are extremely unlikely, although the story is a familiar one.
“Virgin births are usually reserved for kickstarting globe-spanning religions, now what British researchers have attempted, however, is not a feat of faith but science,” said Alyson Grange for WION.
Video by WION:
Known Parthenogenesis in Animals and Mammals
While virgin births in mammals and humans are unlikely, it’s not impossible. Life finds a way and scientists have done it with mammals in laboratories.
Virgin births have been documented in over 80 vertebrate species, insects, crocodiles, snakes, lizards, birds, and fish. Although no mammals are known to reproduce asexually, it has been artificially induced in mammals like rabbits and mice.
In 2004, a mouse named Kaguya became the first mammal born from two egg cells in a lab in Japan. Thus, Kaguya had two mothers. Then, in 2022, baby mice were produced from one unfertilized mouse egg using CRISPR gene editing to mimic genes from a male parent. Only one of the mice lived to adulthood and was able to reproduce.
“The researchers suggest that parthenogenesis in mammals is achievable, though they acknowledge much more work is required before it can be used in real-world applications,” reported Phys.org.
In 1995, the story of a British boy who was partially parthenogenic appeared in Nature Genetics. The three-year-old was a parthenogenic chimera, with entirely female blood cells and other cells with genetic material from both parents.
Video by Anton Petrov about virgin births: