Parthenogenesis: A Primer

A clone. Courtesy Pascal.

It’s late.  Late enough that the neighbors in their multi-colored apartments have dimmed their living room lights, including the friendly man across the way who wheels his motorcycle out on weekend afternoons to impress the pedestrian traffic.

(I’m always impressed.)

The glow emanating onto the street from my particular room isn’t a lamp – it’s a computer, an innocent, silver thing that I’m staring at aggressively while I scroll through endless browser windows.

It’s pitch day tomorrow, and I’ve got nothing.

I’m going to sit in a graduate classroom and stare at my notebook and will some flash of, if not brilliance, methodically-masked mediocrity to come to me.  And then I will pitch some inane piece to my peers and perhaps, many words later, it will manifest into something decent.

And then, a fortuitous scroll, a serendipitous scan –

– I see it.


I find clones fascinating.  The clone trope is my favorite trope.  (Particularly when accented with the panache of Michael Bay.)

And while cloning à la Jurassic Park deserves a post all unto itself, the type that stopped me in my tracks that night and, dare I say it, made me take a second look, was something else:


As if we required further proof life is weird, in walks parthenogenesis, an evolutionarily fascinating and frightening reproductive strategy, serving another round.

Generally, I would say the idea of taking two living things, smushing them together to swap DNA, and creating a new living, breathing thing out of that process sounds fairly deranged, if not irresponsible.  But parthenogenesis?  Forget two living things, if you’re parthenogenetic, you only need yourself to create new life.

Courtesy Angela.

Courtesy Angela.

(I’d say it’s sexy, but it’s actually asexual – it’s why people call it “virgin birth.”)

The story I eventually agonized over and pitched with wild abandon, revolved around my disbelief about this process in pitvipers, but I could have just as easily, and just as eagerly, made it about aphids, bees, snakes, turkeys, or sharks.

It turns out a lot of female animals do this – or at least, they do this when we’ve caged them in zoos or other research facilities.  The pitviper researchers were delighted about their find because the samples of snake skin they analyzed were some of the first evidence of animals essentially cloning themselves in the wild.

This is apomixis.

And it really is like a clone, especially when the mother suppresses meiosis.  Instead of dividing up her chromosomes in preparation for another half from dad, the mother passes on all her genetic material to the child.

A diving cell's chromosomes.

A diving cell’s chromosomes.

This is automixis.

Alternatively, in some mothers, meiosis begins, but because there’s no dad to fertilize the egg and provide the other genes, the process is altered to ensure the chromosomes don’t divide and create a mutant (or more likely, dead) child.

The pitvipers remain a fascinating find because even when males were available, some females had still chosen to go it alone.  The question left, is why?

 If I were a more sophisticated writer, I’d say parthenogenesis represents some kind of microcosm of the scientific endeavor and our ability to shed light on answers is merely a reflection of our ability to create more questions.  Maybe I’d tie in how, much like my neighbors and their apartment lights, the gleam of of science marches on through the darkness, occasionally revving its engine to fascinate the girl across the street.

But honestly?  I just really like clones.

There have been some amazing papers published about the phenomenon.  You can find my personal favorite under the title, Going Solo.


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