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Guest post: I am my mother’s chimera

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This weeks post is a guest post from the wonderful E.E. Giorgi who blogs at: http://chimerasthebooks.blogspot.co.uk/

I AM MY MOTHER’S CHIMERA. CHANCES ARE, SO ARE YOU

For years now the concept of a “genetic chimera” has sparked the imagination of writers: the idea that an individual could harbor his/her own twin is creepy and intriguing at the same time. All fictional works written so far have exploited the concept of tetragametic chimeras, which results from combining two or more genetically distinct organisms. In humans, this happens when two fertilized eggs fuse together during the first hours of life in the womb.

Yet Mother Nature has invented many other forms of chimerism.

Some genetic defects/mutations can lead to individuals with genetically distinct cells in their body. Usually these defects involve anomalies in the number of chromosomes, but there are also asymptomatic cases, like for example animals whose coat is a patchwork of different colors, as in tortoiseshell cats. This type of chimerism is called mosaicism. Contrary to tetragametic chimeras, which originate from two or more individuals fused together, mosaics originate from a single individual. People whose eyes have different colors are also an example of genetic mosaicism.

A tortoiseshell shorthair cat, image from wikimedia commons.

Scientists claim that chimeras are much more common than we think. Chances are, you could be your own twin. But how surprised would you be if I told you that you are actually far more likely to be your mother’s chimera than your unborn sibling’s?

“Microchimerism refers to a small number of cells (or DNA) harbored by one individual that originated in a genetically different individual” (Gammill and Nelson, 2010).

An individual receiving a donor transplant or a blood transfusion is an example of microchimerism. Yet the most common form of microchimerism happens during pregnancy. There’s an ongoing two-way cell trafficking across the placenta, and these exchange cells can actually proliferate long term in the host’s body: fetal cells can be found in the mother years after she gave birth. In fact, because even spontaneous abortions cause fetal cells to be released into the mother’s body, women who became pregnant but never gave birth can also harbor this form of microchimerism.

Just like fetal cells can be found in the mother years after she has given birth, the inverse is also true: maternal cells have been found in fetal liver, lung, heart, thymus, spleen, adrenal, kidney, pancreas, brain, and gonads. What’s surprising is that in either case (mother-to-fetus transfer, or, vice versa, fetus-to-mother transfer), the extraneous cells migrate to a certain tissue and, once there, they are able to differentiate and proliferate, acting at all effects as if they were engrafted. One paper found circulating maternal cells in 39% of the study subjects (Loubiere et al. 2006).

But even if you are not your own twin, even if you don’t harbor cells from your mother or your child, even then chimeras are closer than you think. Because we all originated from a chimera: roughly 10% of our DNA is made from viral genes, and how this came to happen is a fascinating story.

A long, long time ago a virus infected a sperm cell or oocyte of one of our ancestors. Once there, the genetic material from the virus fused with the genetic material of the cell —- that’s an old trick viruses play so they can replicate. Except this particular virus never replicated. The sperm or oocyte was fertilized and became a fetus, and that fetus now carried the bit of viral DNA. The viral genes were “stuck”, no longer able to replicate, and thus effectively silenced.

Finally, the last form of chimerism I would like to discuss is far less known because it belongs to a fairly new field: epigenetics.

Genes are packaged inside the nucleus, some deeply hidden inside, and some exposed so that they can be easily “translated” into proteins. This configuration can change in time, as genes can move from the inside of the nucleus and become exposed, while others previously exposed can become hidden. Life events, changes in the environment or in diet, stress, and traumas can potentially affect these mechanisms, causing some genes to turn on while turning off others.

Epigenetics is the study of all mechanisms that can affect gene silencing (turning the genes “off”) and gene expression (turning the genes “on”). In other words, it addresses the question: what causes some genes to shift from being hidden (silenced) to becoming suddenly exposed (expressed) and other genes instead to suddenly become hidden (silenced)?

You’ve probably guessed it by now: an organism whose cells express distinct genes within the same tissue is called an epigenetic chimera. Adult cells “know” which genes to express and which ones to keep silent. However, germline cells that will eventually be fertilized and originate a new organism have to “forget” this information in order to start “de novo” and be able to differentiate into different tissues as the embryo develops. This is achieved through a process called “epigenetic reprogramming”. It’s like resetting your hard drive and wiping out all memory. By modifying proteins that control this reprogramming in mice, scientists are able to create epigenetic chimeras (Lorthongpanich et al., Science, 2013). These chimeric embryos need additional intervention in order to fully develop, but this kind of research sheds new light on syndromes that are not easily explained by genetics alone.

About the guest blogger: E.E. Giorgi is a scientist, a writer and a photographer: she spends her days analyzing HIV data, her evenings chasing sunsets, and her nights pretending she’s somebody else. She loves to blog about science for the curious mind, especially the kind that sparks fantastic premises and engaging stories. Her detective thriller CHIMERAS, a hard-boiled police procedural with a genetic twist, is now available on Amazon.

S.E. Gould About the Author: A biochemist with a love of microbiology, the Lab Rat enjoys exploring, reading about and writing about bacteria. Having finally managed to tear herself away from university, she now works for a small company in Cambridge where she turns data into manageable words and awesome graphs. Follow on Twitter @labratting.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Lacota 10:07 am 04/13/2014

    How is it that fetal cells can live in the mother or the mother’s cells can live in the fetus without causing an immune reaction? Does that mean that mother’s and their children can donate tissue to one another without fear of rejection?

    Link to this
  2. 2. eegiorgi 10:45 am 04/13/2014

    Yes, it works like a grafting: these are undifferentiated cells. They migrate inside the host and once they reach a particular tissue they are able to proliferate in that tissue as if they were a grafting.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:28 am 04/14/2014

    Second Lacota: the mechanism how fetal cells can live for years in mother without causing immune system rejection has big potential in medicine! Especially to the fields like transplantation, stem cells, regenerative medicine etc! Didn’t know about it before!

    And to add to the collection of chimeras – many or majority of healthy people have tiny tumors in their body, and they could also have altered genetic material.

    Link to this
  4. 4. eegiorgi 9:51 am 04/14/2014

    yes, the potential for medicine is great, I do hope this will be exploited more

    Link to this

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