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1.  Rates of genomic divergence in humans, chimpanzees and their lice 
The rate of DNA mutation and divergence is highly variable across the tree of life. However, the reasons underlying this variation are not well understood. Comparing the rates of genetic changes between hosts and parasite lineages that diverged at the same time is one way to begin to understand differences in genetic mutation and substitution rates. Such studies have indicated that the rate of genetic divergence in parasites is often faster than that of their hosts when comparing single genes. However, the variation in this relative rate of molecular evolution across different genes in the genome is unknown. We compared the rate of DNA sequence divergence between humans, chimpanzees and their ectoparasitic lice for 1534 protein-coding genes across their genomes. The rate of DNA substitution in these orthologous genes was on average 14 times faster for lice than for humans and chimpanzees. In addition, these rates were positively correlated across genes. Because this correlation only occurred for substitutions that changed the amino acid, this pattern is probably produced by similar functional constraints across the same genes in humans, chimpanzees and their ectoparasites.
PMCID: PMC3896009  PMID: 24403325
coevolution; genomics; molecular evolution; hosts and parasites; Pediculus
2.  Phylogenetic analysis of symbionts in feather-feeding lice of the genus Columbicola: evidence for repeated symbiont replacements 
Many groups of insects have obligate bacterial symbionts that are vertically transmitted. Such associations are typically characterized by the presence of a monophyletic group of bacteria living in a well-defined host clade. In addition the phylogeny of the symbiotic bacteria is typically congruent with that of the host, signifying co-speciation. Here we show that bacteria living in a single genus of feather lice, Columbicola (Insecta: Phthiraptera), present an exception to this typical pattern.
The phylogeny of Columbicola spp. symbionts revealed the presence of three candidate clades, with the most species-rich clade having a comb-like topology with very short internodes and long terminal branches. Evolutionary simulations indicate that this topology is characteristic of a process of repeated symbiont replacement over a brief time period. The two remaining candidate clades in our study exhibit high levels of nucleotide substitution, suggesting accelerated molecular evolution due to relaxed purifying selection or smaller effective population size, which is typical of many vertically transmitted insect symbionts. Representatives of the fast-evolving and slow-evolving symbiont lineages exhibit the same localization, migration, and transmission patterns in their hosts, implying direct replacement.
Our findings suggest that repeated, independent symbiont replacements have taken place over the course of the relatively recent radiation of Columbicola spp. These results are compatible with the notion that lice and other insects have the capability to acquire novel symbionts through the domestication of progenitor strains residing in their local environment.
PMCID: PMC3724504  PMID: 23725492
Symbiosis; Insect; Lice; Co-speciation; Symbiont replacement
3.  Multiple lineages of lice pass through the K–Pg boundary 
Biology Letters  2011;7(5):782-785.
For modern lineages of birds and mammals, few fossils have been found that predate the Cretaceous–Palaeogene (K–Pg) boundary. However, molecular studies using fossil calibrations have shown that many of these lineages existed at that time. Both birds and mammals are parasitized by obligate ectoparasitic lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera), which have shared a long coevolutionary history with their hosts. Evaluating whether many lineages of lice passed through the K–Pg boundary would provide insight into the radiation of their hosts. Using molecular dating techniques, we demonstrate that the major louse suborders began to radiate before the K–Pg boundary. These data lend support to a Cretaceous diversification of many modern bird and mammal lineages.
PMCID: PMC3169043  PMID: 21471047
Phthiraptera; evolution; cospeciation; dating
4.  Repeated adaptive divergence of microhabitat specialization in avian feather lice 
BMC Biology  2012;10:52.
Repeated adaptive radiations are evident when phenotypic divergence occurs within lineages, but this divergence into different forms is convergent when compared across lineages. Classic examples of such repeated adaptive divergence occur in island (for example, Caribbean Anolis lizards) and lake systems (for example, African cichlids). Host-parasite systems in many respects are analogous to island systems, where host species represent isolated islands for parasites whose life cycle is highly tied to that of their hosts. Thus, host-parasite systems might exhibit interesting cases of repeated adaptive divergence as seen in island and lake systems.
The feather lice of birds spend their entire life cycle on the body of the host and occupy distinct microhabitats on the host: head, wing, body and generalist. These microhabitat specialists show pronounced morphological differences corresponding to how they escape from host preening. We tested whether these different microhabitat specialists were a case of repeated adaptive divergence by constructing both morphological and molecular phylogenies for a diversity of avian feather lice, including many examples of head, wing, body and generalist forms.
Morphological and molecular based phylogenies were highly incongruent, which could be explained by rampant convergence in morphology related to microhabitat specialization on the host. In many cases lice from different microhabitat specializations, but from the same group of birds, were sister taxa.
This pattern indicates a process of repeated adaptive divergence of these parasites within host group, but convergence when comparing parasites across host groups. These results suggest that host-parasite systems might be another case in which repeated adaptive radiations could be relatively common, but potentially overlooked, because morphological convergence can obscure evolutionary relationships.
PMCID: PMC3391173  PMID: 22717002
adaptive radiation; convergence; Phthiraptera; ectoparasites; phylogenetics
5.  Mitochondrial genome deletions and minicircles are common in lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera) 
BMC Genomics  2011;12:394.
The gene composition, gene order and structure of the mitochondrial genome are remarkably stable across bilaterian animals. Lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera) are a major exception to this genomic stability in that the canonical single chromosome with 37 genes found in almost all other bilaterians has been lost in multiple lineages in favour of multiple, minicircular chromosomes with less than 37 genes on each chromosome.
Minicircular mt genomes are found in six of the ten louse species examined to date and three types of minicircles were identified: heteroplasmic minicircles which coexist with full sized mt genomes (type 1); multigene chromosomes with short, simple control regions, we infer that the genome consists of several such chromosomes (type 2); and multiple, single to three gene chromosomes with large, complex control regions (type 3). Mapping minicircle types onto a phylogenetic tree of lice fails to show a pattern of their occurrence consistent with an evolutionary series of minicircle types. Analysis of the nuclear-encoded, mitochondrially-targetted genes inferred from the body louse, Pediculus, suggests that the loss of mitochondrial single-stranded binding protein (mtSSB) may be responsible for the presence of minicircles in at least species with the most derived type 3 minicircles (Pediculus, Damalinia).
Minicircular mt genomes are common in lice and appear to have arisen multiple times within the group. Life history adaptive explanations which attribute minicircular mt genomes in lice to the adoption of blood-feeding in the Anoplura are not supported by this expanded data set as minicircles are found in multiple non-blood feeding louse groups but are not found in the blood-feeding genus Heterodoxus. In contrast, a mechanist explanation based on the loss of mtSSB suggests that minicircles may be selectively favoured due to the incapacity of the mt replisome to synthesize long replicative products without mtSSB and thus the loss of this gene lead to the formation of minicircles in lice.
PMCID: PMC3199782  PMID: 21813020
6.  Competition promotes the evolution of host generalists in obligate parasites 
Ecological theory traditionally predicts that interspecific competition selects for an increase in ecological specialization. Specialization, in turn, is often thought to be an evolutionary ‘dead end,’ with specialist lineages unlikely to evolve into generalist lineages. In host–parasite systems, this specialization can take the form of host specificity, with more specialized parasites using fewer hosts. We tested the hypothesis that specialists are evolutionarily more derived, and whether competition favours specialization, using the ectoparasitic feather lice of doves. Phylogenetic analyses revealed that complete host specificity is actually the ancestral condition, with generalists repeatedly evolving from specialist ancestors. These multiple origins of generalists are correlated with the presence of potentially competing species of the same genus. A competition experiment with captive doves and lice confirmed that congeneric species of lice do, in fact, have the potential to compete in ecological time. Taken together, these results suggest that interspecific competition can favour the evolution of host generalists, not specialists, over macroevolutionary time.
PMCID: PMC2825781  PMID: 19710056
specialization; coevolution; comparative methods; birds; lice
7.  Reinterpreting the origins of flamingo lice: cospeciation or host-switching? 
Biology Letters  2006;2(2):275-278.
The similarity of the louse faunas of flamingos and ducks has been used as evidence that these two groups of birds are closely related. However, the realization that ducks actually are more closely related to Galliformes caused many workers to reinterpret this similarity in parasite faunas as host switching from ducks to flamingos. Recent unexpected phylogenetic results on the relationships of waterbirds and their lice call for a reinterpretation of the origins of the lice of the enigmatic flamingos. Here, we bring together new evidence on the phylogenetic relationships of flamingos and their lice and show that the lice of flamingos and grebes are closely related because their hosts share a common ancestor (cospeciation). We also demonstrate that the similarity of the louse faunas of flamingos and ducks is a result of host switching from flamingos to ducks, rather than from ducks to flamingos.
PMCID: PMC1618896  PMID: 17148381
coevolution; Phthiraptera; avian systematics; Phoenicopteridae; ducks; grebes
8.  Multiple origins of parasitism in lice. 
A major fraction of the diversity of insects is parasitic, as herbivores, parasitoids or vertebrate ectopara sites. Understanding this diversity requires information on the origin of parasitism in various insect groups. Parasitic lice (Phthiraptera) are the only major group of insects in which all members are permanent parasites of birds or mammals. Lice are classified into a single order but are thought to be closely related to, or derived from, book lice and bark lice (Psocoptera). Here, we use sequences of the nuclear 18S rDNA gene to investigate the relationships among Phthiraptera and Psocoptera and to identify the origins of parasitism in this group (termed Psocodea). Maximum-likelihood (ML), Bayesian ML and parsimony analyses of these data indicate that lice are embedded within the psocopteran infraorder Nanopsocetae, making the order Psocoptera paraphyletic (i.e. does not contain all descendants of a single common ancestor). Furthermore, one family of Psocoptera, Liposcelididae, is identified as the sister taxon to the louse suborder Amblycera, making parasitic lice (Phthiraptera) a polyphyletic order (i.e. descended from two separate ancestors). We infer from these results that parasitism of vertebrates arose twice independently within Psocodea, once in the common ancestor of Amblycera and once in the common ancestor of all other parasitic lice.
PMCID: PMC1691793  PMID: 15315891

Results 1-8 (8)