Dawkins’ fabled cooperative gene discovered in microbes

Mar 14, 2017

By Phys.org

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 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 , 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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2 comments on “Dawkins’ fabled cooperative gene discovered in microbes

  • Wow. Nearly missed this. Awesome.

    I think this is another real science feather in Dawkin’s cap.

    Such predictions eventually proven must be very satisfying.

    Bravo, Richard. Now if only Dennett can get memes as science going (I think its a goer with memes as learned muscle sequences mediating them), my first edition “The Selfish Gene” could become quite the nest egg.

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  • Maybe it will be found in dogs!


    The largest family tree of dogs ever assembled shows how canines evolved into more than 150 modern breeds.

    Dogs were first selected and bred for their ability to perform tasks such as herding goats or cattle, say scientists.

    Later, they were selected for physical features such as their size or colour.

    The study also unearths evidence that some dogs are descended from an ancient breed that travelled with the ancestors of Native Americans into the Americas.

    Archaeological evidence points to the so-called “New World dog”, which apparently crossed with human settlers over a land bridge from Asia.

    It had previously been thought that all signs of this ancient breed had been erased as dogs bred in Europe spread around the world.

    “We think there is still some signature of New World dog hiding in the genome of some of these American breeds,” said co-researcher Heidi Parker of the National Institutes of Health, US.

    Modern hairless breeds such as the Peruvian hairless dog and the Mexican hairless dog are likely descended from this ancient dog.

    In the study, Dr Parker and colleague Dr Elaine Ostrander studied the genetics of 161 modern dog breeds, and their wild relatives, the wolf and the golden jackal.

    They identified 23 clusters (clades) of dog breeds that are all similar to each other.

    You can now tell where different dog breeds came from – and the diseases they are prone to, they say.

    For example, gun dogs all seem to have developed in one place and time – Victorian England.

    “All of the spaniels, the pointers, the setters and the retrievers are actually pretty closely-related and they group into one over-arching clade [cluster] of sporting breeds,” said Dr Parker.

    However, other dogs that appear to be similar – such as herding dogs – are actually quite diverse, suggesting they were bred to fill certain roles many times in history in different places over the course of thousands of years.

    The research, published in Cell Reports, has practical applications for animal health.

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