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ResearchBlogging.orgANIMAL MODELS are widely used in medical research, sometimes in testing new drugs for safety before human trials, other times as model systems for human diseases. Like all mammals, humans and mice share most of their genes, and maintain high sequence similarity. These factors suggest that many of these genes should share the same role. A new study in Proceedings of that National Academy of Sciences examines this hypothesis.

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ResearchBlogging.orgTHE MICROVIRUSES are positive-strand DNA viruses with very small genomes, typified by ΦX174 with 5,400 base pairs and nine genes. Cramming this many genes into that short a sequence requires overlapping reading frames, with gene B contained inside gene A, and gene E contained inside gene D.1 These nested genes are frame-shifted compared to the gene that contains them.

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ResearchBlogging.orgMOST OF OUR study of gene networks has been done by comparison of related species to reconstruct network evolution and by knocking out specific genes to determine what the effects of their absence are. In a new paper Isalan and coworkers try something new, reprogramming genetic networks in Escherichia coli and examining the mutants to detect viability and any possible benefits to genetic pathway modification.

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ResearchBlogging.orgIN MANY CASES even large phenotypic changes can occur without much genetic change. However, occasionally a species will be placed in a situation in which its ancestor’s genes are insufficient, and if the species possesses a gene that can be co-opted into a new role, selection can favor evolution of new genes and a corresponding radiation of species. The Pieridae family of butterflies lay their eggs on plants in the Brassicaceae family, which contains mustards and cabbages. These plants have evolved to produce compounds that are harmless in undamaged leaves, but when a leaf is damaged are converted to a potent insecticide. The pierids evolved a deactivating protein that diverts the chemical reaction to produce nontoxic products. This gene evolved shortly after the plants themselves, and would have allowed these butterflies’ larvae to feed upon these plants with little competition.

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VOLVOCINE ALGAE have a recent evolution of multicellularity, only 30-70 million years ago. This may produce a better record of the early history of this process than we have for other multicellular organisms. Metazoans and multicellular plants evolved over 550 million years ago (multicellular plants multiple times, and some suggest a very ancient history of multicellular algae over 800 million years ago). The fossil record for fungi is not very good, but unambiguous multicellular fungi were present by 500 million years ago. Bacteria meanwhile beat everyone out by evolving multicellularity several times perhaps 2-3 billion years ago. Since most multicellular organisms have a distant origin, extinction has eroded the base of their evolutionary trees so that the details of the transition are hard to extract. The volvocine algae have a much more recent history of multicellularity, and we have been able to determine much about their evolutionary history from phylogenetic studies of these algae and their relatives.

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ResearchBlogging.orgHUMANS CAN live to over seventy years old, yet female fertility begins a precipitous decline after about forty years of age. This is unusual since most other species continue reproducing into old age. Some have proposed our extension of life past reproductive years is due to a survival benefit for grandchildren with grandmothers who contribute to their care. However, this benefit is not enough to explain the initial cessation of reproduction.

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ResearchBlogging.orgIN THE PAST week or so I’ve been writing about the attine ants, which have a complicated mutualistic network combining cultivated fungi and actinomycete bacteria, and are parasitized by Escovopsis fungi and perhaps black yeasts as well! Today I’m writing about the attine ants again, but along a very different angle. In this case this paper examines the influence of evolution upon reproductive behavior. I actually ran across the paper by accident, having previously planned to write about a paper on evolution and reproductive behavior in humans. This paper nicely transitions between these two themes.

Among organisms in general it is a bad idea evolutionarily to abandon breeding in favor of helping another individual raise its offspring. There are examples of social cheaters among groups as different as myxobacteria, slime molds, vertebrates, and insects. The myxobacteria and slime molds are bacteria and eukaryotes respectively that have converged upon a similar lifecycle. These are organisms capable of lone existence, but which mass together during unfavorable conditions to produce a stalk that launches spores. Ideally every strain in the group will be represented equally in the spores produced, but some cheater strains are able to produce more than their share of spores. Among vertebrates, there are examples in many groups of species that parasitize the nests of others, foisting off their young upon an unsuspecting individual. Cowbirds and cuckoos are well known among the birds, and cuckoos gave their name to the cuckoo catfish, which parasitizes cichlids. A similar parasitism is seen among insects where some wasp species will infiltrate another species nest and lay their eggs. The ants take this type of parasitism even further, with some species going to war against others to capture their larvae, which are raised in their captor’s colony and tend their brood. But the type of reproductive cheating occurring in attine ants is different from all of these!

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ResearchBlogging.orgI HAVE ALREADY mentioned one type of selfish genetic element. These are mobile elements that can move about and reproduce within the genome, and include the transposon and retrotransposons. A second similar type of selfish genetic element are the homing endonucleases. These come in two forms, as introns which are spliced out of RNA and then translated into protein instead of being discarded, or as inteins that splice out of the protein once it has been synthesized. In both cases the homing endonuclease then during meiosis attacks the allele that does not contain the homing endonuclease intron or intein and triggers DNA repair that duplicates the homing endonuclease’s sequence. Since mobile elements and homing endonucleases either attack at a wide variety of sites or duplicate onto both of a pair of chromosomes, they are passed on according to Mendelian inheritance patterns. But there are other selfish genetic elements that are passed on preferentially, and a new paper in Genetica focuses on the effects of these selfish elements upon fertility in carrier males.

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ResearchBlogging.orgTHERE IS A new article published online at PNAS reporting the results of a 36-year experiment on the Italian wall lizard Podarcis sicula. A population of lizards was already living on a small islet called Pod Kopiste, and the authors moved five females and five males to the nearby islet Pod Mrcaru. This was originally an experiment in “competitive exclusion”, as the islet was already inhabited by the Dalmatian wall lizard, Podarcis melisellensis, which was apparently outcompeted and is now extinct on that islet.

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WHENEVER A BABY is born, there are always the inevitable discussions of which parent the baby resembles, whose ears he got, and where that nose came from. However, the father is usually the winner–babies are usually said to look most like the father, and even the mother will usually deny resemblance to herself in preference of the father. Why is this?

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