Why Pea Aphids Are The Most Awesome OrganismS

The pea aphid is one of the weirdest and most versatile creatures around. It can reproduce sexually or asexually, can breed winged or unwinged babies, and is also a symbiote. This week, its genome has been sequenced.

PLoS Biology published information about the sequenced pea aphid genome this week, including loads of interesting details about how the tiny bug is able to use a bacterial symbiont to digest its main food source: plant sap. In fact, the aphid and its symbiont have co-evolved for so long that they actually have what you might call complimentary genomes. Write the authors of the genome analysis:

Genes encoding the synthesis of a number of essential amino acids are distributed between the genomes of the pea aphid and its symbiont.

In other words, some of the genes crucial to the life cycle of the aphid are actually stored outside its body, in the genome of its symbiont.

This weird aphid is what biologists call a "model organism," partly because it is so simple but also because it is so versatile, demonstrating how one genome can code for dramatically different phenotypes in the same species. Imagine if humans could breed a new generation of winged humans simply because the weather or food sources changed. Or if humans could choose to fertilize themselves sometimes, then later on have babies created via fertilization from another human. That's the sort of insane versatility you find in the many expressions of the pea aphid genome.

Here's to studying the fully-sequenced pea aphid genome, in the hope of making our genomes more awesome.

via PLoS Biology