The realm of reproduction and genetics continues to challenge our fundamental understanding of biology. One particularly interesting niche in the world of genetics is twins. Many people are not aware that there are more than two types of twins. Most people know of fraternal and identical twins, but in rare cases, a woman can give birth to twins with different fathers. This is called heteropaternal superfecundation.
Identical vs. Fraternal Twins
To understand the concept of twins from different fathers, you must first understand the fundamental differences between identical and fraternal twins.
Fraternal twins develop when two separate eggs are fertilised by two different sperm. Like typical siblings, these twins share only about 50% of their DNA. They can look alike due to shared familial traits, or they could look very different. Fraternal twins can be of the same sex or different sexes.
Sometimes fraternal twins born of the same sex look so similar that parents will question whether they are fraternal or identical. This question can be answered with the help of twin zygosity DNA testing.
Identical twins occur when one fertilised egg splits into two separate embryos. These twins share almost 100% of their DNA, are always of the same sex, and typically look remarkably alike, hence the term “identical.”
Twins from Different Fathers: Heteropaternal Superfecundation
For a woman to have twins with different fathers, she would have to ovulate two eggs within the same cycle and have sexual intercourse with two different men within a few days. The release of more than one egg during a cycle is called hyperovulation. Hyperovulation can occur in 20% of women, but it is often sporadic and hard to predict.
Each man’s sperm would need to fertilise one of the eggs, leading to twins related through their mother but not their father. Even though these twins would share a womb at the same time, they would be considered only half-siblings legally.
This occurrence is incredibly infrequent due to a number of unusual events needing to happen within the same cycle. While very uncommon, heteropaternal superfecundation has been documented in several cases, most employing paternity testing to confirm the different biological fathers.
First cousins share about 12.5% of their DNA in a typical family tree. However, when a pair of identical twins have children with another set of identical twins, this creates a unique genetic situation.
Imagine two male identical twins (Jim and John) and two female identical twins (Sarah and Shelly) both getting married. Eventually, each couple has a child. The child of Sarah and Jim would be the “twin cousin” of the child of Shelly and John. The children of these two pairs of twins would share 50% of their DNA. This shared DNA would make them full siblings genetically, but they would be recognised as first cousins legally.Like normal siblings and fraternal twins, “twin cousins” have the potential to look very similar due to shared familial traits – especially if they are the same sex.