Geneticists from the Universities of Manchester and Bath are celebrating the discovery of the elusive ‘greenbeard gene’ that helps explain why organisms are more likely to cooperate with some individuals than others
The renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “greenbeard gene” in his 1976 best seller The Selfish Gene.
The greenbeard is a special type of gene that, said Dawkins, could solve the conundrum of how organisms identify and direct selfless behaviour to towards other selfless individuals.
The existence of greenbeard genes once seemed improbable, but work published in Nature Communications by the team of geneticists has identified a gene that causes a whole range of ‘beard colours’ in a social microbe.
The microbes – ‘slime moulds’ – live as single celled organisms, but clump together to form a slug like creature when they run out of food. The newly formed slug can move to help them find new sources of food, but this depends on successful cooperation.
With funding from the Wellcome Trust, NERC and the BBSRC the research team found that slime mould cells are able to decide who they collaborate with. By sequencing their genomes, they discovered that partnership choices are based on a greenbeard gene.
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