[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]
Why bother with sex? It’s a question that’s bugged biologists since they first noticed that some critters do it and some don’t. The answer they’ve come up with is that sex generates genetic diversity, which could allow a species to better adapt to changing environments. That’s because sex mixes together the genes from mom and dad. And, like shuffling a deck of cards and dealing new hands, sometimes the kids will get a better combination of genes than their parents had.
So how do species that reproduce by cloning weather change? It turns out not all clones are alike. Scientists from Melbourne were studying a kind of mite that reproduces asexually. In the process, sometimes rare mutations occur, so a clone might be a little different from its parent, and from the rest of the population.
What the scientists found is that sometimes these rare mutants are favored by natural selection. Maybe they’re a little better at hiding from predators. So they leave behind more offspring, and eventually come to dominate the population. When circumstances change, another rare mutant might gain favor, results that appear in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. So sex isn’t necessary, as long as you’re willing to back somebody different when it’s time for a change.