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December 21, 2006

Immaculate conception

OK, OK, so this is a sensitive subject to some people, but the news is full of the fact that we are expecting a "virgin" birth - in a zoo. It has been known for some time, in fact is written up scientifically, that reptiles and avians don't share the mammilian Y-chromosome. The sex of any hatchling is apparently determined by the temperature during incubation but we don't (at least I haven't seen it anywhere) fully understand the mechanism that produces this. Then there are chickens. A problem for the Battery Hen farmers is the spontaneous appearance among a couple of hundred hens of a Cock Bird. The result is chaos as the battery eggs are supposed to be unfertilised - introduce a cockerell and suddenly the eggs are doing things they should not commercially. The scientists have been working on this one for some time and still haven't full unraveled how a hen chick can change sex when the need or the occassion arises!

The excitement in our press at the moment is over the coming "virgin" birth (hatching out) of a clutch of eggs laid by a Komodo Dragon, nearest male several hundred miles distant! It appears that the Dragon's eggs are fertilised and it is equally the case that she has not had the opportunity to meet up with a Mister Dragon ....

All joking aside, there is a scientific name for this and it is something that has been recorded and documented in other species, but was thought to be a rare and otherwise unusual event. Now it seems, since the Zoos in the UK have now had several of these "events" in the last year, it may not be so unusual after all - in fact, it may well be that, in some species, males may not be necessary in the reproductive role! This probably bodes no good for the future of mamilian males either .....

Again, and trying to be serious for a moment, it has been noted that the modern "Y" Chromosome is seriously different to that carried by our original Homo Sapiens. In fact this is the case in all mammals, the Y-Chromosome is rapidly (give or take another couple of hundred generations) being reduced to a shadow of its original size, shape and function. This may explain why males are more susceptible to certain cancers and some genetic diseases. Males only have one set of genetic data to copy from - and its all on the X-Chromosome. Females, having two X's have two sets of data to copy in the genetic code and thus may carry, but not suffer from, a range of genetic disorders because some mechanism we don't yet understand seems to switch off a defective gene and switch on a good one from the other chromosome.

Perhaps the concept of virgin births in humans is not beyond the realms of possibility - in the far future it may well have become the norm. For now? I think the traditional approach is with us for some time to come. As for the Komodo Mum to be, I hope her offspring prove scientifically as interesting as their species is - after all, this seems to me at any rate to be an interesting example of a species that has the ability to pull itself back from the brink and it may be important for us to know how - the knowledge may be useful to our species one of these days!

Posted by The Gray Monk at December 21, 2006 06:12 PM

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