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Concept: Evolution


The population extinction pulse we describe here shows, from a quantitative viewpoint, that Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe than perceived when looking exclusively at species extinctions. Therefore, humanity needs to address anthropogenic population extirpation and decimation immediately. That conclusion is based on analyses of the numbers and degrees of range contraction (indicative of population shrinkage and/or population extinctions according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature) using a sample of 27,600 vertebrate species, and on a more detailed analysis documenting the population extinctions between 1900 and 2015 in 177 mammal species. We find that the rate of population loss in terrestrial vertebrates is extremely high-even in “species of low concern.” In our sample, comprising nearly half of known vertebrate species, 32% (8,851/27,600) are decreasing; that is, they have decreased in population size and range. In the 177 mammals for which we have detailed data, all have lost 30% or more of their geographic ranges and more than 40% of the species have experienced severe population declines (>80% range shrinkage). Our data indicate that beyond global species extinctions Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations, which will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization. We describe this as a “biological annihilation” to highlight the current magnitude of Earth’s ongoing sixth major extinction event.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Mammal, Extinction, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


Over a decade ago, the Atacama humanoid skeleton (Ata) was discovered in the Atacama region of Chile. The Ata specimen carried a strange phenotype-6-in stature, fewer than expected ribs, elongated cranium, and accelerated bone age-leading to speculation that this was a preserved nonhuman primate, human fetus harboring genetic mutations, or even an extraterrestrial. We previously reported that it was human by DNA analysis with an estimated bone age of about 6-8 yr at the time of demise. To determine the possible genetic drivers of the observed morphology, DNA from the specimen was subjected to whole-genome sequencing using the Illumina HiSeq platform with an average 11.5× coverage of 101-bp, paired-end reads. In total, 3,356,569 single nucleotide variations (SNVs) were found as compared to the human reference genome, 518,365 insertions and deletions (indels), and 1047 structural variations (SVs) were detected. Here, we present the detailed whole-genome analysis showing that Ata is a female of human origin, likely of Chilean descent, and its genome harbors mutations in genes (COL1A1,COL2A1,KMT2D,FLNB,ATR,TRIP11,PCNT) previously linked with diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia). Together, these findings provide a molecular characterization of Ata’s peculiar phenotype, which likely results from multiple known and novel putative gene mutations affecting bone development and ossification.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Mutation, Evolution, Molecular biology, Human genome, Chile


Genome editing tools such as the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)-associated system (Cas) have been widely used to modify genes in model systems including animal zygotes and human cells, and hold tremendous promise for both basic research and clinical applications. To date, a serious knowledge gap remains in our understanding of DNA repair mechanisms in human early embryos, and in the efficiency and potential off-target effects of using technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 in human pre-implantation embryos. In this report, we used tripronuclear (3PN) zygotes to further investigate CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human cells. We found that CRISPR/Cas9 could effectively cleave the endogenous β-globin gene (HBB). However, the efficiency of homologous recombination directed repair (HDR) of HBB was low and the edited embryos were mosaic. Off-target cleavage was also apparent in these 3PN zygotes as revealed by the T7E1 assay and whole-exome sequencing. Furthermore, the endogenous delta-globin gene (HBD), which is homologous to HBB, competed with exogenous donor oligos to act as the repair template, leading to untoward mutations. Our data also indicated that repair of the HBB locus in these embryos occurred preferentially through the non-crossover HDR pathway. Taken together, our work highlights the pressing need to further improve the fidelity and specificity of the CRISPR/Cas9 platform, a prerequisite for any clinical applications of CRSIPR/Cas9-mediated editing.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Genetics, Bacteria, Evolution, Chromosome, DNA repair


Although humans and arthropods have been living and evolving together for all of our history, we know very little about the arthropods we share our homes with apart from major pest groups. Here we surveyed, for the first time, the complete arthropod fauna of the indoor biome in 50 houses (located in and around Raleigh, North Carolina, USA). We discovered high diversity, with a conservative estimate range of 32-211 morphospecies, and 24-128 distinct arthropod families per house. The majority of this indoor diversity (73%) was made up of true flies (Diptera), spiders (Araneae), beetles (Coleoptera), and wasps and kin (Hymenoptera, especially ants: Formicidae). Much of the arthropod diversity within houses did not consist of synanthropic species, but instead included arthropods that were filtered from the surrounding landscape. As such, common pest species were found less frequently than benign species. Some of the most frequently found arthropods in houses, such as gall midges (Cecidomyiidae) and book lice (Liposcelididae), are unfamiliar to the general public despite their ubiquity. These findings present a new understanding of the diversity, prevalence, and distribution of the arthropods in our daily lives. Considering their impact as household pests, disease vectors, generators of allergens, and facilitators of the indoor microbiome, advancing our knowledge of the ecology and evolution of arthropods in homes has major economic and human health implications.

Concepts: Evolution, Nematocera, Insect, Arthropod, Flies, Ant, Spider, Pterygota


Poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET) is one of the most abundantly produced synthetic polymers and is accumulating in the environment at a staggering rate as discarded packaging and textiles. The properties that make PET so useful also endow it with an alarming resistance to biodegradation, likely lasting centuries in the environment. Our collective reliance on PET and other plastics means that this buildup will continue unless solutions are found. Recently, a newly discovered bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, was shown to exhibit the rare ability to grow on PET as a major carbon and energy source. Central to its PET biodegradation capability is a secreted PETase (PET-digesting enzyme). Here, we present a 0.92 Å resolution X-ray crystal structure of PETase, which reveals features common to both cutinases and lipases. PETase retains the ancestral α/β-hydrolase fold but exhibits a more open active-site cleft than homologous cutinases. By narrowing the binding cleft via mutation of two active-site residues to conserved amino acids in cutinases, we surprisingly observe improved PET degradation, suggesting that PETase is not fully optimized for crystalline PET degradation, despite presumably evolving in a PET-rich environment. Additionally, we show that PETase degrades another semiaromatic polyester, polyethylene-2,5-furandicarboxylate (PEF), which is an emerging, bioderived PET replacement with improved barrier properties. In contrast, PETase does not degrade aliphatic polyesters, suggesting that it is generally an aromatic polyesterase. These findings suggest that additional protein engineering to increase PETase performance is realistic and highlight the need for further developments of structure/activity relationships for biodegradation of synthetic polyesters.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Evolution, Amino acid, Crystal, Polymer, Materials science, Polyester


This study examines genetic diversity among 102 registered English Bulldogs used for breeding based on maternal and paternal haplotypes, allele frequencies in 33 highly polymorphic short tandem repeat (STR) loci on 25 chromosomes, STR-linked dog leukocyte antigen (DLA) class I and II haplotypes, and the number and size of genome-wide runs of homozygosity (ROH) determined from high density SNP arrays. The objective was to assess whether the breed retains enough genetic diversity to correct the genotypic and phenotypic abnormalities associated with poor health, to allow for the elimination of deleterious recessive mutations, or to make further phenotypic changes in body structure or coat. An additional 37 English bulldogs presented to the UC Davis Veterinary Clinical Services for health problems were also genetically compared with the 102 registered dogs based on the perception that sickly English bulldogs are products of commercial breeders or puppy-mills and genetically different and inferior.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Genotype, Allele, Evolution, Genetic genealogy, Bulldog


One of the notable features of penguin evolution is the occurrence of very large species in the early Cenozoic, whose body size greatly exceeded that of the largest extant penguins. Here we describe a new giant species from the late Paleocene of New Zealand that documents the very early evolution of large body size in penguins. Kumimanu biceae, n. gen. et sp. is larger than all other fossil penguins that have substantial skeletal portions preserved. Several plesiomorphic features place the new species outside a clade including all post-Paleocene giant penguins. It is phylogenetically separated from giant Eocene and Oligocene penguin species by various smaller taxa, which indicates multiple origins of giant size in penguin evolution. That a penguin rivaling the largest previously known species existed in the Paleocene suggests that gigantism in penguins arose shortly after these birds became flightless divers. Our study therefore strengthens previous suggestions that the absence of very large penguins today is likely due to the Oligo-Miocene radiation of marine mammals.

Concepts: Evolution, Bird, Mammal, Phylogenetics, Penguin, Dinosaur, Penguins, Flightless bird


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.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Bird, Science, Mammal, Primate, Learning, Face perception


Agrobacterium rhizogenes and Agrobacterium tumefaciens are plant pathogenic bacteria capable of transferring DNA fragments [transfer DNA (T-DNA)] bearing functional genes into the host plant genome. This naturally occurring mechanism has been adapted by plant biotechnologists to develop genetically modified crops that today are grown on more than 10% of the world’s arable land, although their use can result in considerable controversy. While assembling small interfering RNAs, or siRNAs, of sweet potato plants for metagenomic analysis, sequences homologous to T-DNA sequences from Agrobacterium spp. were discovered. Simple and quantitative PCR, Southern blotting, genome walking, and bacterial artificial chromosome library screening and sequencing unambiguously demonstrated that two different T-DNA regions (IbT-DNA1 and IbT-DNA2) are present in the cultivated sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas [L.] Lam.) genome and that these foreign genes are expressed at detectable levels in different tissues of the sweet potato plant. IbT-DNA1 was found to contain four open reading frames (ORFs) homologous to the tryptophan-2-monooxygenase (iaaM), indole-3-acetamide hydrolase (iaaH), C-protein (C-prot), and agrocinopine synthase (Acs) genes of Agrobacterium spp. IbT-DNA1 was detected in all 291 cultigens examined, but not in close wild relatives. IbT-DNA2 contained at least five ORFs with significant homology to the ORF14, ORF17n, rooting locus (Rol)B/RolC, ORF13, and ORF18/ORF17n genes of A. rhizogenes. IbT-DNA2 was detected in 45 of 217 genotypes that included both cultivated and wild species. Our finding, that sweet potato is naturally transgenic while being a widely and traditionally consumed food crop, could affect the current consumer distrust of the safety of transgenic food crops.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Bacteria, Agriculture, Evolution, Molecular biology, Horizontal gene transfer


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.

Concepts: Immune system, Gene, Genetics, Natural selection, Bacteria, Evolution, Innate immune system, Genetic genealogy