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How bacteria share genes; Streptococcus and Neisseria


The origin of sex
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I think the origin of sex is unique, I think it happened just once. Sex meaning meiosis, the production of haploid gametes and then the fusion of them, I think that happened just once. And there... it happened somewhat a thousand million years ago, it's always difficult to be sure that one's got the right explanation, I mean, how do you test your ideas? But that's one area where I think there are difficulties. The other area... you see, sex can mean so many different things to a biologist. I've been using sex to mean, as I say, meiosis and the fusion of two equal gametes.

[Q] That had to happen once only, because it's too similar in...

Yes, yes, it's incredibly similar in animals and plants and fungi, the actual mechanisms are almost identical. But the whole world of bacteria go in for sex - I think we should talk about this later on, perhaps - but they don't do it the same way at all, they're sort of just swapping individual genes in a curious way, and that also requires an explanation for its origin and its maintenance and so on, and we really have almost no ideas about it. Well, I've got ideas about it, but the formal mathematics hasn't been done, we're not even sure what experiments we ought to do, it's much more sort of open, because people have only just started thinking about it.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: sex, meiosis, gametes, genes

Duration: 1 minute, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008