Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
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Internal brooding favours pre-metamorphic chimerism in a non-colonial cnidarian, the sea anemone Urticina felina

Annie Mercier

Annie Mercier

Ocean Sciences Centre (OSC), Memorial University, Saint John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada A1C 5S7

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Zhao Sun

Zhao Sun

Ocean Sciences Centre (OSC), Memorial University, Saint John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada A1C 5S7

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Jean-François Hamel

Jean-François Hamel

Society for the Exploration and Valuing of the Environment (SEVE), 21 Phils Hill Road, Portugal Cove-Saint Philips, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada A1M 2B7

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    The concept of intraorganismal genetic heterogeneity resulting from allogeneic fusion (i.e. chimerism) has almost exclusively been explored in modular organisms that have the capacity to reproduce asexually, such as colonial ascidians and corals. Apart from medical conditions in mammals, the natural development of chimeras across ontogenetic stages has not been investigated in any unitary organism incapable of asexual propagation. Furthermore, chimerism was mainly studied among gregarious settlers to show that clustering of genetically similar individuals upon settlement promotes the occurrence of multi-chimeras exhibiting greater fitness. The possible occurrence of chimeric embryos and larvae prior to settlement has not received any attention. Here we document for the first time the presence of natural chimeras in brooded embryos and larvae of a unitary cnidarian, the sea anemone Urticina felina. Rates of visible bi- and multi-chimerism of up to 3.13 per cent were measured in the broods of 16 females. Apart from these sectorial chimeras, monitored fusion events also yielded homogeneous chimeric entities (mega-larvae) suggesting that the actual rates of natural chimerism in U. felina are greater than predicted by visual assessment. In support of this assumption, the broods of certain individuals comprised a dominant proportion (to 90%) of inexplicably large embryos and larvae (relative to oocyte size). Findings of fusion and chimerism in a unitary organism add a novel dimension to the framework within which the mechanisms and evolutionary significance of genetic heterogeneity in animal taxa can be explored.

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