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Why Caenorhabditis elegans adults sacrifice their bodies to progeny

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image of Nematology
For more content, see Nematologica.

We present a novel interpretation regarding the ecology and evolution of matricidal hatching ('bagging') in Caenorhabditis elegans. Subjecting young and mature adult C. elegans to stress induced matricidal hatching. The process of egg retention followed by internal hatching under starvation was reversible, depending on whether adults were returned to food before internal juveniles caused irreversible harm to the adult. We surface sterilised adult C. elegans and then starved them to test the hypothesis that matricidal hatching promotes progeny survival by enhancing to some degree the transition to the dauer stage. When the surface sterilisation stress time was short, the parent C. elegans enclosed many progeny that competed for resources so that apparently only a few progeny obtained sufficient nutrition to support transition to the dauer stage. Longer sterilisation stress and starvation resulted in fewer, larger progeny with a higher proportion reaching the dauer stage, suggesting a direct correlation between the phenomena. In stressful environments, the production of even a single, stress-resistant, long-lived dauer, in lieu of progeny that cannot achieve the dauer, is a fitness advantage. The results are consistent with the hypothesis. We infer that intra-uterine hatch is a part of the C. elegans life cycle, and complements androdioecy and the dauer stage to enhance progeny survival and dispersal under stress. This is a possible explanation of why a seemingly detrimental behaviour, matricidal hatching, has been perpetuated in C. elegans through evolutionary time.


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