Concept: Natural selection
Two rival theories of how humans recognize faces exist: (i) recognition is innate, relying on specialized neocortical circuitry, and (ii) recognition is a learned expertise, relying on general object recognition pathways. Here, we explore whether animals without a neocortex, can learn to recognize human faces. Human facial recognition has previously been demonstrated for birds, however they are now known to possess neocortex-like structures. Also, with much of the work done in domesticated pigeons, one cannot rule out the possibility that they have developed adaptations for human face recognition. Fish do not appear to possess neocortex-like cells, and given their lack of direct exposure to humans, are unlikely to have evolved any specialized capabilities for human facial recognition. Using a two-alternative forced-choice procedure, we show that archerfish (Toxotes chatareus) can learn to discriminate a large number of human face images (Experiment 1, 44 faces), even after controlling for colour, head-shape and brightness (Experiment 2, 18 faces). This study not only demonstrates that archerfish have impressive pattern discrimination abilities, but also provides evidence that a vertebrate lacking a neocortex and without an evolutionary prerogative to discriminate human faces, can nonetheless do so to a high degree of accuracy.
Pathogens and the diseases they cause have been among the most important selective forces experienced by humans during their evolutionary history. Although adaptive alleles generally arise by mutation, introgression can also be a valuable source of beneficial alleles. Archaic humans, who lived in Europe and Western Asia for more than 200,000 years, were probably well adapted to this environment and its local pathogens. It is therefore conceivable that modern humans entering Europe and Western Asia who admixed with them obtained a substantial immune advantage from the introgression of archaic alleles. Here we document a cluster of three Toll-like receptors (TLR6-TLR1-TLR10) in modern humans that carries three distinct archaic haplotypes, indicating repeated introgression from archaic humans. Two of these haplotypes are most similar to the Neandertal genome, and the third haplotype is most similar to the Denisovan genome. The Toll-like receptors are key components of innate immunity and provide an important first line of immune defense against bacteria, fungi, and parasites. The unusually high allele frequencies and unexpected levels of population differentiation indicate that there has been local positive selection on multiple haplotypes at this locus. We show that the introgressed alleles have clear functional effects in modern humans; archaic-like alleles underlie differences in the expression of the TLR genes and are associated with reduced microbial resistance and increased allergic disease in large cohorts. This provides strong evidence for recurrent adaptive introgression at the TLR6-TLR1-TLR10 locus, resulting in differences in disease phenotypes in modern humans.
Microbial communities are ubiquitous in both natural and artificial environments. However, microbial diversity is usually reduced under strong selection pressures, such as those present in habitats rich in recalcitrant or toxic compounds displaying antimicrobial properties. Caffeine is a natural alkaloid present in coffee, tea and soft drinks with well-known antibacterial properties. Here we present the first systematic analysis of coffee machine-associated bacteria. We sampled the coffee waste reservoir of ten different Nespresso machines and conducted a dynamic monitoring of the colonization process in a new machine. Our results reveal the existence of a varied bacterial community in all the machines sampled, and a rapid colonisation process of the coffee leach. The community developed from a pioneering pool of enterobacteria and other opportunistic taxa to a mature but still highly variable microbiome rich in coffee-adapted bacteria. The bacterial communities described here, for the first time, are potential drivers of biotechnologically relevant processes including decaffeination and bioremediation.
A recent slew of ENCODE Consortium publications, specifically the article signed by all Consortium members, put forward the idea that more than 80% of the human genome is functional. This claim flies in the face of current estimates according to which the fraction of the genome that is evolutionarily conserved through purifying selection is under 10%. Thus, according to the ENCODE Consortium, a biological function can be maintained indefinitely without selection, which implies that at least 80 - 10 = 70% of the genome is perfectly invulnerable to deleterious mutations, either because no mutation can ever occur in these “functional” regions, or because no mutation in these regions can ever be deleterious. This absurd conclusion was reached through various means, chiefly (1) by employing the seldom used “causal role” definition of biological function and then applying it inconsistently to different biochemical properties, (2) by committing a logical fallacy known as “affirming the consequent,” (3) by failing to appreciate the crucial difference between “junk DNA” and “garbage DNA,” (4) by using analytical methods that yield biased errors and inflate estimates of functionality, (5) by favoring statistical sensitivity over specificity, and (6) by emphasizing statistical significance rather than the magnitude of the effect. Here, we detail the many logical and methodological transgressions involved in assigning functionality to almost every nucleotide in the human genome. The ENCODE results were predicted by one of its authors to necessitate the rewriting of textbooks. We agree, many textbooks dealing with marketing, mass-media hype, and public relations may well have to be rewritten.
The evolutionary reasons for variation in nose shape across human populations have been subject to continuing debate. An import function of the nose and nasal cavity is to condition inspired air before it reaches the lower respiratory tract. For this reason, it is thought the observed differences in nose shape among populations are not simply the result of genetic drift, but may be adaptations to climate. To address the question of whether local adaptation to climate is responsible for nose shape divergence across populations, we use Qst-Fst comparisons to show that nares width and alar base width are more differentiated across populations than expected under genetic drift alone. To test whether this differentiation is due to climate adaptation, we compared the spatial distribution of these variables with the global distribution of temperature, absolute humidity, and relative humidity. We find that width of the nares is correlated with temperature and absolute humidity, but not with relative humidity. We conclude that some aspects of nose shape may indeed have been driven by local adaptation to climate. However, we think that this is a simplified explanation of a very complex evolutionary history, which possibly also involved other non-neutral forces such as sexual selection.
Dysbiosis of the oral microbiome can lead to local oral disease and potentially to cancers of the head, neck, and digestive tract. However, little is known regarding exogenous factors contributing to such microbial imbalance.
Whereas domestication of livestock, pets, and crops is well documented, it is still unclear to what extent microbes associated with the production of food have also undergone human selection and where the plethora of industrial strains originates from. Here, we present the genomes and phenomes of 157 industrial Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeasts. Our analyses reveal that today’s industrial yeasts can be divided into five sublineages that are genetically and phenotypically separated from wild strains and originate from only a few ancestors through complex patterns of domestication and local divergence. Large-scale phenotyping and genome analysis further show strong industry-specific selection for stress tolerance, sugar utilization, and flavor production, while the sexual cycle and other phenotypes related to survival in nature show decay, particularly in beer yeasts. Together, these results shed light on the origins, evolutionary history, and phenotypic diversity of industrial yeasts and provide a resource for further selection of superior strains. PAPERCLIP.
Could some vaccines drive the evolution of more virulent pathogens? Conventional wisdom is that natural selection will remove highly lethal pathogens if host death greatly reduces transmission. Vaccines that keep hosts alive but still allow transmission could thus allow very virulent strains to circulate in a population. Here we show experimentally that immunization of chickens against Marek’s disease virus enhances the fitness of more virulent strains, making it possible for hyperpathogenic strains to transmit. Immunity elicited by direct vaccination or by maternal vaccination prolongs host survival but does not prevent infection, viral replication or transmission, thus extending the infectious periods of strains otherwise too lethal to persist. Our data show that anti-disease vaccines that do not prevent transmission can create conditions that promote the emergence of pathogen strains that cause more severe disease in unvaccinated hosts.
Modern humans have large and globular brains that distinguish them from their extinct Homo relatives. The characteristic globularity develops during a prenatal and early postnatal period of rapid brain growth critical for neural wiring and cognitive development. However, it remains unknown when and how brain globularity evolved and how it relates to evolutionary brain size increase. On the basis of computed tomographic scans and geometric morphometric analyses, we analyzed endocranial casts of Homo sapiens fossils (N = 20) from different time periods. Our data show that, 300,000 years ago, brain size in early H. sapiens already fell within the range of present-day humans. Brain shape, however, evolved gradually within the H. sapiens lineage, reaching present-day human variation between about 100,000 and 35,000 years ago. This process started only after other key features of craniofacial morphology appeared modern and paralleled the emergence of behavioral modernity as seen from the archeological record. Our findings are consistent with important genetic changes affecting early brain development within the H. sapiens lineage since the origin of the species and before the transition to the Later Stone Age and the Upper Paleolithic that mark full behavioral modernity.
Millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned the ability of venom peptides to rapidly incapacitate both prey and potential predators. Toxicofera reptiles are characterized by serous-secreting mandibular or maxillary glands with heightened levels of protein expression. These glands are the core anatomical components of the toxicoferan venom system, which exists in myriad points along an evolutionary continuum. Neofunctionalisation of toxins is facilitated by positive selection at functional hotspots on the ancestral protein and venom proteins have undergone dynamic diversification in helodermatid and varanid lizards as well as advanced snakes. A spectacular point on the venom system continuum is the long-glanded blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgatus), a specialist feeder that preys on fast moving, venomous snakes which have both a high likelihood of prey escape but also represent significant danger to the predator itself. The maxillary venom glands of C. bivirgatus extend one quarter of the snake’s body length and nestle within the rib cavity. Despite the snake’s notoriety its venom has remained largely unstudied. Here we show that the venom uniquely produces spastic paralysis, in contrast to the flaccid paralysis typically produced by neurotoxic snake venoms. The toxin responsible, which we have called calliotoxin (δ-elapitoxin-Cb1a), is a three-finger toxin (3FTx). Calliotoxin shifts the voltage-dependence of NaV1.4 activation to more hyperpolarised potentials, inhibits inactivation, and produces large ramp currents, consistent with its profound effects on contractile force in an isolated skeletal muscle preparation. Voltage-gated sodium channels (NaV) are a particularly attractive pharmacological target as they are involved in almost all physiological processes including action potential generation and conduction. Accordingly, venom peptides that interfere with NaV function provide a key defensive and predatory advantage to a range of invertebrate venomous species including cone snails, scorpions, spiders, and anemones. Enhanced activation or delayed inactivation of sodium channels by toxins is associated with the extremely rapid onset of tetanic/excitatory paralysis in envenomed prey animals. A strong selection pressure exists for the evolution of such toxins where there is a high chance of prey escape. However, despite their prevalence in other venomous species, toxins causing delay of sodium channel inhibition have never previously been described in vertebrate venoms. Here we show that NaV modulators, convergent with those of invertebrates, have evolved in the venom of the long-glanded coral snake. Calliotoxin represents a functionally novel class of 3FTx and a structurally novel class of NaV toxins that will provide significant insights into the pharmacology and physiology of NaV. The toxin represents a remarkable case of functional convergence between invertebrate and vertebrate venom systems in response to similar selection pressures. These results underscore the dynamic evolution of the Toxicofera reptile system and reinforces the value of using evolution as a roadmap for biodiscovery.