11.1 The Process of Meiosis
Sexual reproduction requires that organisms produce cells that can fuse during fertilization to produce offspring. In most organisms, fertilization occurs between two haploid cells, the larger being called “female” or “egg” and the smaller being called “male” or “sperm.” In most animals, meiosis is used to produce haploid egg and sperm from diploid parent cells so that the fusion of an egg and sperm produces a diploid zygote. As with mitosis, DNA replication occurs prior to meiosis during the S-phase of the cell cycle so that each chromosome becomes a pair of sister chromatids. In meiosis, there are two rounds of nuclear division resulting in four nuclei and usually four daughter cells, each with half the number of chromosomes as the parent cell. The first division separates homologous chromosomes, and the second—like mitosis—separates chromatids into individual chromosomes. Meiosis generates variation in the daughter nuclei during crossover in prophase I as well as during the random alignment of tetrads at metaphase I. The cells that are produced by meiosis are genetically unique.
Meiosis and mitosis share similar processes, but have distinct outcomes. Mitotic divisions are single nuclear divisions that produce genetically identical daughter nuclei (i.e., each daughter nucleus has the same number of chromosome sets as the original cell). In contrast, meiotic divisions include two nuclear divisions that ultimately produce four genetically different daughter nuclei that have only one chromosome set (instead of the two sets of chromosomes in the parent cell). The main differences between the two nuclear division processes take place during the first division of meiosis: homologous chromosomes pair, crossover, and exchange homologous nonsister chromatid segments. The homologous chromosomes separate into different nuclei during meiosis I, causing a reduction of ploidy level in the first division. The second division of meiosis is similar to a mitotic division, except that the daughter cells do not contain identical genomes because of crossover and chromosome recombination in prophase I.
11.2 Sexual Reproduction
Nearly all eukaryotes undergo sexual reproduction. The variation introduced into the reproductive cells by meiosis provides an important advantage that has made sexual reproduction evolutionarily successful. Meiosis and fertilization alternate in sexual life cycles. The process of meiosis produces unique reproductive cells called gametes, which have half the number of chromosomes as the parent cell. When two haploid gametes fuse, this restores the diploid condition in the new zygote. Thus, most sexually reproducing organisms alternate between haploid and diploid stages. However, the ways in which reproductive cells are produced and the timing between meiosis and fertilization vary greatly.