As a little guilty pleasure of mine, sometimes I enjoy watching tv shows where there’s a dispute of paternity involved. You know what kind of shows I’m talking about: those where the host proclaims “Trevor, you are NOT the father” and within a split second the audience is shouting, howling and/or clapping and the presumable “father” is doing something that resembles Dr. Zoiberg’s happy dance.
But how do paternity tests work?
The entire premise is quite simple; the man will provide a sample of his DNA by swabbing the inside of his cheek to collect epithelial cells and his genetic information will be compared to the one from the child. If they are around 50% similar to each other then the laboratory can attest that both parties are related.
When babies are formed they get 50% of the nucleic DNA from each parent to achieve the 100% they need to develop properly so if baby Trevor Jr. doesn’t have close to a 50% match of his DNA with Trevor Sr. then we can assume that they are not related.
However, what if I told you that there is a species in which the male that mated with the female and produced the baby was not the father? Even better, his brother (the baby’s uncle) is the father even though he never even met the mother!
This is so crazy but I can assure it’s true!
And if you are thinking that it must be some barely known species of fish or invertebrate you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a small New World monkey, the Wied’s marmoset (Callithrix kuhlii) that lives in the tropical forests of Brazil.
How is this possible?
The reason is simple; you see, in nature there are some very special individuals that have more than one DNA set. These individuals are called “chimeras”. The name came from the Greek mythology where the chimera was a creature that was made up of parts of several others animals.
While in Greek mythology chimeras looked quite crazy with part lion, part snake and part deer (or other variations), the real life chimeras existing on our planet are less easy to spot but equality exciting and the Wied’s marmoset is a great example of it.
These South American small monkeys are very well known for almost always giving birth to fraternal twins. As embryos in the womb of their mother, the twins’ placentas get fused together from an early stage in the development thus allowing stem cells the freedom to be transferred between both siblings. These stem cells are the ones that will eventually set up groups of cells and developing specific parts of the body.
So now follow me in this situation:
- Marmoset A(ndre) and B(runo) are twin brothers and both chimera (as in, they both have sets of DNA from their twin brother).
- Because of them being chimeras, when they were born, Andre ended up with his DNA in most parts of his body (such as the brain, muscles, liver, etc) but his testicles developed using Bruno’s DNA that got transferred through stem cells while they were in the womb.
- This means that when Andre’s testicles produce sperm, the genetic information contained in this sperm will in fact be Bruno’s DNA.
- Andre and Bruno were living in a Zoo and before they reached maturity, Bruno got transferred and Andre stayed behind.
- Eventually they both reached sexual maturity and Andre got a female (C)arla pregnant.
- When the babies were born the Zoo wanted to check out who the father was and tested the babies.
- Because Andre’s testicles were producing sperm with Bruno’s DNA, their dad, Andre was technically and genetically not the dad.
- This is how Bruno managed to father some babies even though he never even met Carla!
Nature can be so complex and crazy that sometimes I wonder if I’m reading a scientific article or watching a Mexican soap opera.
In case you want to know more about this very interesting topic feel free to read the (very detailed) article published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Até à próxima!