Putting It Together: Cell Division

Mitosis and meiosis are both forms of division of the nucleus in eukaryotic cells. They share some similarities, but also exhibit distinct differences that lead to very different outcomes (Figure 1 and Table 1). Mitosis is a single nuclear division that results in two nuclei that are usually partitioned into two new cells. The nuclei resulting from a mitotic division are genetically identical to the original nucleus. They have the same number of sets of chromosomes, one set in the case of haploid cells and two sets in the case of diploid cells. In most plants and all animal species, it is typically diploid cells that undergo mitosis to form new diploid cells. In contrast, meiosis consists of two nuclear divisions resulting in four nuclei that are usually partitioned into four new cells. The nuclei resulting from meiosis are not genetically identical and they contain one chromosome set only. This is half the number of chromosome sets in the original cell, which is diploid.

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.

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. 

Figure 1. 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.

Table 1. Meiosis v. Mitosis
Meiosis Mitosis
DNA Synthesis Occurs in S phase of Interphase Occurs in S phase of Interphase
Synapsis of homolgous chromosomes During prophase I Does not occur in mitosis
Crossover During prophase I Does not occur in mitosis
Homologous chromosomes line up at metaphase plate During metaphase I Does not occur in mitosis
Sister chromatids line up at metaphase plate During metaphase II During metaphase
Outcome: Number and genetic composition of daughter cells Four haploid cells at the end of meiosis II Two diploid cells at the end of mitosis

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[1] 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[2] 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.

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  1. Adam S. Wilkins and Robin Holliday, “The Evolution of Meiosis from Mitosis,” Genetics 181 (2009): 3–12.
  2. 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.