The High Cost of Sex
No, I don’t mean in the red light district of Amsterdam or at Mustang Ranch. What I am talking about is the high biological cost of sex. In fact, it is so expensive it can be hard to imagine how it ever evolved in the first place.
The main reason sex is so costly is it takes two parents to have a kid. Asexual creatures can do it on their own.
This doesn’t sound like much of an advantage, but it is. Some computer simulations show that a single asexual individual can overtake a population of one million sexual creatures in about 50 generations. That is about 1000 years for people and only 8 years for mice.
So sex needs to have some pretty big advantages to have ever evolved in the first place. Otherwise the first sexual creature would have been quickly swamped out by all of its asexual brethren as soon as it appeared.
In the past, scientists have pointed to variation as one of sex’s big advantage. This probably isn’t the whole story though. Or even most of it.
Sex does create additional variety through the mixing of genes but it probably isn’t enough to explain the rise of sex. You’d have to live in some pretty chaotic times for this variation to offer enough an advantage to an individual to overcome its cost. Eight or a thousand years just isn’t that long in an evolutionary time scale.
Recombination is simply the swapping of DNA between two identical (or nearly identical) pieces of DNA. For us that means swapping between the chromosomes we got from mom and dad. So DNA is swapped between our two chromosome 1’s our two chromosome 2’s and so on.
This is where part of that variation we were talking about earlier comes from. But more importantly, recombination actually helps repair DNA damage. You can see the effects of no recombination by looking at our sad little Y chromosome which is slowly disappearing because it has no one to recombine with except itself.
But recombination is a double edged sword. Cells need it to repair their DNA but it can cause lots of DNA damage if it isn’t controlled. For example, even with all of our controls in place, 1 in 1000 humans still ends up with one chromosome stuck to another.
You can see what happens with uncontrolled recombination by looking at cancer cells. These cells end up with extra chromosomes, chromosomes stuck together, and lots of other chromosomal problems because they recombine willy-nilly. They do well for themselves but are definitely bad for the individual.
So it makes sense to contain recombination to some easily controlled time. Sex may have arisen and took over the world because it provides a safer way to keep harmful DNA damage in check. The variation that everyone goes on about may simply have been a beneficial side effect.
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