Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Evolution


The “wooden-steps” hypothesis [Distel DL, et al. (2000) Nature 403:725-726] proposed that large chemosynthetic mussels found at deep-sea hydrothermal vents descend from much smaller species associated with sunken wood and other organic deposits, and that the endosymbionts of these progenitors made use of hydrogen sulfide from biogenic sources (e.g., decaying wood) rather than from vent fluids. Here, we show that wood has served not only as a stepping stone between habitats but also as a bridge between heterotrophic and chemoautotrophic symbiosis for the giant mud-boring bivalve Kuphus polythalamia This rare and enigmatic species, which achieves the greatest length of any extant bivalve, is the only described member of the wood-boring bivalve family Teredinidae (shipworms) that burrows in marine sediments rather than wood. We show that K. polythalamia harbors sulfur-oxidizing chemoautotrophic (thioautotrophic) bacteria instead of the cellulolytic symbionts that allow other shipworm species to consume wood as food. The characteristics of its symbionts, its phylogenetic position within Teredinidae, the reduction of its digestive system by comparison with other family members, and the loss of morphological features associated with wood digestion indicate that K. polythalamia is a chemoautotrophic bivalve descended from wood-feeding (xylotrophic) ancestors. This is an example in which a chemoautotrophic endosymbiosis arose by displacement of an ancestral heterotrophic symbiosis and a report of pure culture of a thioautotrophic endosymbiont.

Concepts: Algae, Bacteria, Evolution, Symbiosis, Endosymbiont, Hydrothermal vent, Bivalvia, Shipworm


Researchers have long been fascinated by the strong continuities evident in the oral traditions associated with different cultures. According to the ‘historic-geographic’ school, it is possible to classify similar tales into “international types” and trace them back to their original archetypes. However, critics argue that folktale traditions are fundamentally fluid, and that most international types are artificial constructs. Here, these issues are addressed using phylogenetic methods that were originally developed to reconstruct evolutionary relationships among biological species, and which have been recently applied to a range of cultural phenomena. The study focuses on one of the most debated international types in the literature: ATU 333, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. A number of variants of ATU 333 have been recorded in European oral traditions, and it has been suggested that the group may include tales from other regions, including Africa and East Asia. However, in many of these cases, it is difficult to differentiate ATU 333 from another widespread international folktale, ATU 123, ‘The Wolf and the Kids’. To shed more light on these relationships, data on 58 folktales were analysed using cladistic, Bayesian and phylogenetic network-based methods. The results demonstrate that, contrary to the claims made by critics of the historic-geographic approach, it is possible to identify ATU 333 and ATU 123 as distinct international types. They further suggest that most of the African tales can be classified as variants of ATU 123, while the East Asian tales probably evolved by blending together elements of both ATU 333 and ATU 123. These findings demonstrate that phylogenetic methods provide a powerful set of tools for testing hypotheses about cross-cultural relationships among folktales, and point towards exciting new directions for research into the transmission and evolution of oral narratives.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Folklore, Fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood


New discoveries and dating of fossil remains from the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa, have strong implications for our understanding of Pleistocene human evolution in Africa. Direct dating of Homo naledi fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber (Berger et al., 2015) shows that they were deposited between about 236 ka and 335 ka (Dirks et al., 2017), placing H. naledi in the later Middle Pleistocene. Hawks and colleagues (Hawks et al., 2017) report the discovery of a second chamber within the Rising Star system (Dirks et al., 2015) that contains H. naledi remains. Previously, only large-brained modern humans or their close relatives had been demonstrated to exist at this late time in Africa, but the fossil evidence for any hominins in subequatorial Africa was very sparse. It is now evident that a diversity of hominin lineages existed in this region, with some divergent lineages contributing DNA to living humans and at least H. naledi representing a survivor from the earliest stages of diversification within Homo. The existence of a diverse array of hominins in subequatorial comports with our present knowledge of diversity across other savanna-adapted species, as well as with palaeoclimate and paleoenvironmental data. H. naledi casts the fossil and archaeological records into a new light, as we cannot exclude that this lineage was responsible for the production of Acheulean or Middle Stone Age tool industries.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Africa, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Human evolution, Prehistory, Hominini


Plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) has been shown to be a key component of the senescence-related secretome and a direct mediator of cellular senescence. In murine models of accelerated aging, genetic deficiency and targeted inhibition of PAI-1 protect against aging-like pathology and prolong life span. However, the role of PAI-1 in human longevity remains unclear. We hypothesized that a rare loss-of-function mutation in SERPINE1 (c.699_700dupTA), which encodes PAI-1, could play a role in longevity and metabolism in humans. We studied 177 members of the Berne Amish community, which included 43 carriers of the null SERPINE1 mutation. Heterozygosity was associated with significantly longer leukocyte telomere length, lower fasting insulin levels, and lower prevalence of diabetes mellitus. In the extended Amish kindred, carriers of the null SERPINE1 allele had a longer life span. Our study indicates a causal effect of PAI-1 on human longevity, which may be mediated by alterations in metabolism. Our findings demonstrate the utility of studying loss-of-function mutations in populations with geographic and genetic isolation and shed light on a novel therapeutic target for aging.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Cancer, Mutation, Evolution, Senescence, DNA repair, Telomere


Although common in birds, social monogamy, or pair-living, is rare among mammals because internal gestation and lactation in mammals makes it advantageous for males to seek additional mating opportunities. A number of hypotheses have been proposed to explain the evolution of social monogamy among mammals: as a male mate-guarding strategy, because of the benefits of biparental care, or as a defense against infanticidal males. However, comparative analyses have been unable to resolve the root causes of monogamy. Primates are unusual among mammals because monogamy has evolved independently in all of the major clades. Here we combine trait data across 230 primate species with a Bayesian likelihood framework to test for correlated evolution between monogamy and a range of traits to evaluate the competing hypotheses. We find evidence of correlated evolution between social monogamy and both female ranging patterns and biparental care, but the most compelling explanation for the appearance of monogamy is male infanticide. It is only the presence of infanticide that reliably increases the probability of a shift to social monogamy, whereas monogamy allows the secondary adoption of paternal care and is associated with a shift to discrete ranges. The origin of social monogamy in primates is best explained by long lactation periods caused by altriciality, making primate infants particularly vulnerable to infanticidal males. We show that biparental care shortens relative lactation length, thereby reducing infanticide risk and increasing reproductive rates. These phylogenetic analyses support a key role for infanticide in the social evolution of primates, and potentially, humans.

Concepts: Human, Male, Reproduction, Evolution, Female, Sex, Mammal, Primate


The discovery of fluorescent proteins has revolutionized experimental biology. Whereas the majority of fluorescent proteins have been identified from cnidarians, recently several fluorescent proteins have been isolated across the animal tree of life. Here we show that biofluorescence is not only phylogenetically widespread, but is also phenotypically variable across both cartilaginous and bony fishes, highlighting its evolutionary history and the possibility for discovery of numerous novel fluorescent proteins. Fish biofluorescence is especially common and morphologically variable in cryptically patterned coral-reef lineages. We identified 16 orders, 50 families, 105 genera, and more than 180 species of biofluorescent fishes. We have also reconstructed our current understanding of the phylogenetic distribution of biofluorescence for ray-finned fishes. The presence of yellow long-pass intraocular filters in many biofluorescent fish lineages and the substantive color vision capabilities of coral-reef fishes suggest that they are capable of detecting fluoresced light. We present species-specific emission patterns among closely related species, indicating that biofluorescence potentially functions in intraspecific communication and evidence that fluorescence can be used for camouflage. This research provides insight into the distribution, evolution, and phenotypic variability of biofluorescence in marine lineages and examines the role this variation may play.

Concepts: Gene, Evolution, Molecular biology, Biology, Species, Fish, Phylogenetic tree, Vertebrate


Establishing the timescale of early land plant evolution is essential for testing hypotheses on the coevolution of land plants and Earth’s System. The sparseness of early land plant megafossils and stratigraphic controls on their distribution make the fossil record an unreliable guide, leaving only the molecular clock. However, the application of molecular clock methodology is challenged by the current impasse in attempts to resolve the evolutionary relationships among the living bryophytes and tracheophytes. Here, we establish a timescale for early land plant evolution that integrates over topological uncertainty by exploring the impact of competing hypotheses on bryophyte-tracheophyte relationships, among other variables, on divergence time estimation. We codify 37 fossil calibrations for Viridiplantae following best practice. We apply these calibrations in a Bayesian relaxed molecular clock analysis of a phylogenomic dataset encompassing the diversity of Embryophyta and their relatives within Viridiplantae. Topology and dataset sizes have little impact on age estimates, with greater differences among alternative clock models and calibration strategies. For all analyses, a Cambrian origin of Embryophyta is recovered with highest probability. The estimated ages for crown tracheophytes range from Late Ordovician to late Silurian. This timescale implies an early establishment of terrestrial ecosystems by land plants that is in close accord with recent estimates for the origin of terrestrial animal lineages. Biogeochemical models that are constrained by the fossil record of early land plants, or attempt to explain their impact, must consider the implications of a much earlier, middle Cambrian-Early Ordovician, origin.

Concepts: Evolution, Plant, Plants, Bryophyte, Embryophyte, Moss, Marchantiophyta, Hornwort


The ant genus Pheidole-for all of its hyperdiversity and global ubiquity-is remarkably conservative with regard to morphological disparity. A striking exception to this constrained morphology is the spinescent morphotype, which has evolved multiple times across distantly related lineages of Indoaustralian Pheidole. The Pheidole cervicornis group contains perhaps the most extraordinary spinescent forms of all Pheidole. Here we present a taxonomic revision of the P. cervicornis group, and use microtomographic scanning technology to investigate the internal anatomy of the thoracic spines. Our findings suggest the pronotal spines of Pheidole majors, are possibly skeletomuscular adaptations for supporting their disproportionately large heads. The ‘head support hypothesis’ is an alternative to the mechanical defense hypothesis most often used to explain spinescence in ants. The P. cervicornis group is known only from New Guinea and is represented by the following four species, including two described here as new: P. barumtaun Donisthorpe, P. drogon sp. nov., P. cervicornis Emery, and P. viserion sp. nov. The group is most readily identified by the minor worker caste, which has extremely long pronotal spines and strongly bifurcating propodeal spines. The major and minor workers of all species are illustrated with specimen photographs, with the exception of the major worker of P. cervicornis, which is not known.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Insect, Major, Ant, Hymenoptera, Minor scale, Minor chord


Here, I argue that computational thinking and techniques are so central to the quest of understanding life that today all biology is computational biology. Computational biology brings order into our understanding of life, it makes biological concepts rigorous and testable, and it provides a reference map that holds together individual insights. The next modern synthesis in biology will be driven by mathematical, statistical, and computational methods being absorbed into mainstream biological training, turning biology into a quantitative science.

Concepts: Scientific method, Evolution, Mathematics, Biology, Life, Species, Sociology, Logic


Fatality rates of infectious diseases are often higher in men than women. Although this difference is often attributed to a stronger immune response in women, we show that differences in the transmission routes that the sexes provide can result in evolution favouring pathogens with sex-specific virulence. Because women can transmit pathogens during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding, pathogens adapt, evolving lower virulence in women. This can resolve the long-standing puzzle on progression from Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus Type 1 (HTLV-1) infection to lethal Adult T-cell Leukaemia (ATL); a progression that is more likely in Japanese men than women, while it is equally likely in Caribbean women and men. We argue that breastfeeding, being more prolonged in Japan than in the Caribbean, may have driven the difference in virulence between the two populations. Our finding signifies the importance of investigating the differences in genetic expression profile of pathogens in males and females.

Concepts: Immune system, Infectious disease, Bacteria, Evolution, Infection, Gender, Human T-lymphotropic virus, Sex