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The main differences between mitosis and meiosis occur in meiosis I, which is a very different nuclear division than mitosis. In meiosis I, the homologous chromosome pairs become associated with each other, are bound together with the synaptonemal complex, develop chiasmata and undergo crossover between sister chromatids, and line up along the metaphase plate in tetrads with kinetochore fibers from opposite spindle poles attached to each kinetochore of a homolog in a tetrad. All of these events occur only in meiosis I.

When the chiasmata resolve and the tetrad is broken up with the homologs moving to one pole or another, the ploidy level—the number of sets of chromosomes in each future nucleus—has been reduced from two to one. For this reason, meiosis I is referred to as a reduction division    . There is no such reduction in ploidy level during mitosis.

Meiosis II is much more analogous to a mitotic division. In this case, the duplicated chromosomes (only one set of them) line up on the metaphase plate with divided kinetochores attached to kinetochore fibers from opposite poles. During anaphase II, as in mitotic anaphase, the kinetochores divide and one sister chromatid—now referred to as a chromosome—is pulled to one pole while the other sister chromatid is pulled to the other pole. If it were not for the fact that there had been crossover, the two products of each individual meiosis II division would be identical (like in mitosis). Instead, they are different because there has always been at least one crossover per chromosome. Meiosis II is not a reduction division because although there are fewer copies of the genome in the resulting cells, there is still one set of chromosomes, as there was at the end of meiosis I.

This illustration compares meiosis and mitosis. In meiosis, there are two rounds of cell division, whereas there is only one round of cell division in mitosis. In both mitosis and meiosis, DNA synthesis occurs during S phase. Synapsis of homologous chromosomes occurs in prophase I of meiosis, but does not occur in mitosis. Crossover of chromosomes occurs in prophase I of meiosis, but does not occur in mitosis. Homologous pairs of chromosomes line up at the metaphase plate during metaphase I of meiosis, but not during mitosis. Sister chromatids line up at the metaphase plate during metaphase II of meiosis and metaphase of mitosis. The result of meiosis is four haploid daughter cells, and the result of mitosis is two diploid daughter cells.
Meiosis and mitosis are both preceded by one round of DNA replication; however, meiosis includes two nuclear divisions. The four daughter cells resulting from meiosis are haploid and genetically distinct. The daughter cells resulting from mitosis are diploid and identical to the parent cell.

Evolution connection

The mystery of the evolution of meiosis

Some characteristics of organisms are so widespread and fundamental that it is sometimes difficult to remember that they evolved like other simpler traits. Meiosis is such an extraordinarily complex series of cellular events that biologists have had trouble hypothesizing and testing how it may have evolved. Although meiosis is inextricably entwined with sexual reproduction and its advantages and disadvantages, it is important to separate the questions of the evolution of meiosis and the evolution of sex, because early meiosis may have been advantageous for different reasons than it is now. Thinking outside the box and imagining what the early benefits from meiosis might have been is one approach to uncovering how it may have evolved.

Meiosis and mitosis share obvious cellular processes and it makes sense that meiosis evolved from mitosis. The difficulty lies in the clear differences between meiosis I and mitosis. Adam Wilkins and Robin Holliday

Adam S. Wilkins and Robin Holliday, “The Evolution of Meiosis from Mitosis,” Genetics 181 (2009): 3–12.

summarized the unique events that needed to occur for the evolution of meiosis from mitosis. These steps are homologous chromosome pairing, crossover exchanges, sister chromatids remaining attached during anaphase, and suppression of DNA replication in interphase. They argue that the first step is the hardest and most important, and that understanding how it evolved would make the evolutionary process clearer. They suggest genetic experiments that might shed light on the evolution of synapsis.

There are other approaches to understanding the evolution of meiosis in progress. Different forms of meiosis exist in single-celled protists. Some appear to be simpler or more “primitive” forms of meiosis. Comparing the meiotic divisions of different protists may shed light on the evolution of meiosis. Marilee Ramesh and colleagues

Marilee A. Ramesh, Shehre-Banoo Malik and John M. Logsdon, Jr, “A Phylogenetic Inventory of Meiotic Genes: Evidence for Sex in Giardia and an Early Eukaryotic Origin of Meiosis,” Current Biology 15 (2005):185–91.

compared the genes involved in meiosis in protists to understand when and where meiosis might have evolved. Although research is still ongoing, recent scholarship into meiosis in protists suggests that some aspects of meiosis may have evolved later than others. This kind of genetic comparison can tell us what aspects of meiosis are the oldest and what cellular processes they may have borrowed from in earlier cells.

Click through the steps of this interactive animation to compare the meiotic process of cell division to that of mitosis: How Cells Divide .

Section summary

Sexual reproduction requires that diploid organisms produce haploid cells that can fuse during fertilization to form diploid offspring. As with mitosis, DNA replication occurs prior to meiosis during the S-phase of the cell cycle. Meiosis is a series of events that arrange and separate chromosomes and chromatids into daughter cells. During the interphases of meiosis, each chromosome is duplicated. 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 separates homologs, and the second—like mitosis—separates chromatids into individual chromosomes. During meiosis, variation in the daughter nuclei is introduced because of crossover in prophase I and random alignment of tetrads at metaphase I. The cells that are produced by meiosis are genetically unique.

Meiosis and mitosis share similarities, but have distinct outcomes. Mitotic divisions are single nuclear divisions that produce daughter nuclei that are genetically identical and have the same number of chromosome sets as the original cell. Meiotic divisions include two nuclear divisions that produce four daughter nuclei that are genetically different and have one chromosome set instead of the two sets of chromosomes in the parent cell. The main differences between the processes occur in the first division of meiosis, in which homologous chromosomes are paired and exchange non-sister 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 more similar to a mitotic division, except that the daughter cells do not contain identical genomes because of crossover.

Questions & Answers

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