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1.  Hepatitis E Virus Infection, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Kiribati, 2003–2005 
Emerging Infectious Diseases  2014;20(6):1057-1058.
PMCID: PMC4036777  PMID: 24856799
Hepatitis E; seroprevalence; South Pacific; infection; viruses; Papua New Guinea; Fiji; Kiribati; zoonoses
2.  Exceptional Evolutionary Divergence of Human Muscle and Brain Metabolomes Parallels Human Cognitive and Physical Uniqueness 
PLoS Biology  2014;12(5):e1001871.
Accelerated evolution of the human brain and muscle metabolomes reflects our unique cognitive and physical capacities.
Metabolite concentrations reflect the physiological states of tissues and cells. However, the role of metabolic changes in species evolution is currently unknown. Here, we present a study of metabolome evolution conducted in three brain regions and two non-neural tissues from humans, chimpanzees, macaque monkeys, and mice based on over 10,000 hydrophilic compounds. While chimpanzee, macaque, and mouse metabolomes diverge following the genetic distances among species, we detect remarkable acceleration of metabolome evolution in human prefrontal cortex and skeletal muscle affecting neural and energy metabolism pathways. These metabolic changes could not be attributed to environmental conditions and were confirmed against the expression of their corresponding enzymes. We further conducted muscle strength tests in humans, chimpanzees, and macaques. The results suggest that, while humans are characterized by superior cognition, their muscular performance might be markedly inferior to that of chimpanzees and macaque monkeys.
Author Summary
Physiological processes that maintain our tissues' functionality involve the generation of multiple products and intermediates known as metabolites—small molecules with a weight of less than 1,500 Daltons. Changes in concentrations of these metabolites are thought to be closely related to changes in phenotype. Here, we assessed concentrations of more than 10,000 metabolites in three brain regions and two non-neural tissues (skeletal muscle and kidney) of humans, chimpanzees, macaque monkeys, and mice using mass spectrometry-based approaches. We found that the evolution of the metabolome largely reflects genetic divergence between species and is not greatly affected by environmental factors. In the human lineage, however, we observed an exceptional acceleration of metabolome evolution in the prefrontal cortical region of the brain and in skeletal muscle. Based on additional behavioral tests, we further show that metabolic changes in human muscle seem to be paralleled by a drastic reduction in muscle strength. The observed rapid metabolic changes in brain and muscle, together with the unique human cognitive skills and low muscle performance, might reflect parallel mechanisms in human evolution.
PMCID: PMC4035273  PMID: 24866127
3.  Phylogenetic Species Identification in Rattus Highlights Rapid Radiation and Morphological Similarity of New Guinean Species 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(5):e98002.
The genus Rattus is highly speciose, the taxonomy is complex, and individuals are often difficult to identify to the species level. Previous studies have demonstrated the usefulness of phylogenetic approaches to identification in Rattus but some species, especially among the endemics of the New Guinean region, showed poor resolution. Possible reasons for this are simple misidentification, incomplete gene lineage sorting, hybridization, and phylogenetically distinct lineages that are unrecognised taxonomically. To assess these explanations we analysed 217 samples, representing nominally 25 Rattus species, collected in New Guinea, Asia, Australia and the Pacific. To reduce misidentification problems we sequenced museum specimens from earlier morphological studies and recently collected tissues from samples with associated voucher specimens. We also reassessed vouchers from previously sequenced specimens. We inferred combined and separate phylogenies from two mitochondrial DNA regions comprising 550 base pair D-loop sequences and both long (655 base pair) and short (150 base pair) cytochrome oxidase I sequences. Our phylogenetic species identification for 17 species was consistent with morphological designations and current taxonomy thus reinforcing the usefulness of this approach. We reduced misidentifications and consequently the number of polyphyletic species in our phylogenies but the New Guinean Rattus clades still exhibited considerable complexity. Only three of our eight New Guinean species were monophyletic. We found good evidence for either incomplete mitochondrial lineage sorting or hybridization between species within two pairs, R. leucopus/R. cf. verecundus and R. steini/R. praetor. Additionally, our results showed that R. praetor, R. niobe and R. verecundus each likely encompass more than one species. Our study clearly points to the need for a revised taxonomy of the rats of New Guinea, based on broader sampling and informed by both morphology and phylogenetics. The remaining taxonomic complexity highlights the recent and rapid radiation of Rattus in the Australo-Papuan region.
PMCID: PMC4035291  PMID: 24865350
4.  Two New Fern Chloroplasts and Decelerated Evolution Linked to the Long Generation Time in Tree Ferns 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2014;6(5):1166-1173.
We report the chloroplast genomes of a tree fern (Dicksonia squarrosa) and a “fern ally” (Tmesipteris elongata), and show that the phylogeny of early land plants is basically as expected, and the estimates of divergence time are largely unaffected after removing the fastest evolving sites. The tree fern shows the major reduction in the rate of evolution, and there has been a major slowdown in the rate of mutation in both families of tree ferns. We suggest that this is related to a generation time effect; if there is a long time period between generations, then this is probably incompatible with a high mutation rate because otherwise nearly every propagule would probably have several lethal mutations. This effect will be especially strong in organisms that have large numbers of cell divisions between generations. This shows the necessity of going beyond phylogeny and integrating its study with other properties of organisms.
PMCID: PMC4040995  PMID: 24787621
Tmesipteris; Dicksonia; ferns and fern allies; chloroplast genomes; generation time effect; mutation rates
5.  Phylogenetic Position of Avian Nocturnal and Diurnal Raptors 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2014;6(2):326-332.
We report three new avian mitochondrial genomes, two from widely separated groups of owls and a falcon relative (the Secretarybird). We then report additional progress in resolving Neoavian relationships in that the two groups of owls do come together (it is not just long-branch attraction), and the Secretarybird is the deepest divergence on the Accipitridae lineage. This is now agreed between mitochondrial and nuclear sequences. There is no evidence for the monophyly of the combined three groups of raptors (owls, eagles, and falcons), and again this is agreed by nuclear and mitochondrial sequences. All three groups (owls, accipitrids [eagles], and falcons) do appear to be members of the “higher land birds,” and though there may not yet be full “consilience” between mitochondrial and nuclear sequences for the precise order of divergences of the eagles, falcons, and the owls, there is good progress on their relationships.
PMCID: PMC3942033  PMID: 24448983
raptor evolution; mitochondrial genomes; owls; Secretarybird; Accipitridae; Strigiformes
6.  Infection Frequency of Hepatitis C Virus and IL28B Haplotypes in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Kiribati 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(8):e66749.
It has been estimated that there are more than 60 million Hepatitis C virus (HCV) carriers in the World Health Organisation's Western Pacific region (WHO-WPR), where liver cancer is among the top three causes of cancer death. WHO and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention report the prevalence of HCV in the South Pacific islands (countries within the WHO-WPR) to be high (5–10% and >2% respectively). However, since HCV is not tested for in many of these countries, there is sparse data available to support this assertion. We screened ∼2000 apparently healthy individuals from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Kiribati and found a sero-prevalence of 2.0%, 0.1% and 0%, respectively. All sero-positive samples tested negative for HCV RNA. Curious as to why all the sero-positive individuals were negative for HCV-RNA, we also screened them for the HCV protective IL28B SNP markers rs12979860 and rs8099917. All antibody-positive participants bar one had HCV protective haplotypes. Our results suggest that HCV is present in these Pacific island countries, albeit at a prevalence lower than previous estimates. As none of our participants had undergone antiviral treatment, and therefore must have cleared infection naturally, we hypothesise that genotypes 1 and/or 4 are circulating in South Pacific Island people and that these peoples are genetically predisposed to be more likely to spontaneous resolve HCV infection than to become chronic carriers.
PMCID: PMC3748064  PMID: 23976941
7.  Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Evolution from DNA Sequences 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(8):e69924.
We demonstrate quantitatively that, as predicted by evolutionary theory, sequences of homologous proteins from different species converge as we go further and further back in time. The converse, a non-evolutionary model can be expressed as probabilities, and the test works for chloroplast, nuclear and mitochondrial sequences, as well as for sequences that diverged at different time depths. Even on our conservative test, the probability that chance could produce the observed levels of ancestral convergence for just one of the eight datasets of 51 proteins is ≈1×10−19 and combined over 8 datasets is ≈1×10−132. By comparison, there are about 1080 protons in the universe, hence the probability that the sequences could have been produced by a process involving unrelated ancestral sequences is about 1050 lower than picking, among all protons, the same proton at random twice in a row. A non-evolutionary control model shows no convergence, and only a small number of parameters are required to account for the observations. It is time that that researchers insisted that doubters put up testable alternatives to evolution.
PMCID: PMC3738579  PMID: 23950906
8.  In Silico Resurrection of the Major Vault Protein Suggests It Is Ancestral in Modern Eukaryotes 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2013;5(8):1567-1583.
Vaults are very large oligomeric ribonucleoproteins conserved among a variety of species. The rat vault 3D structure shows an ovoid oligomeric particle, consisting of 78 major vault protein monomers, each of approximately 861 amino acids. Vaults are probably the largest ribonucleoprotein structures in eukaryote cells, being approximately 70 nm in length with a diameter of 40 nm—the size of three ribosomes and with a lumen capacity of 50 million Å3. We use both protein sequences and inferred ancestral sequences for in silico virtual resurrection of tertiary and quaternary structures to search for vaults in a wide variety of eukaryotes. We find that the vault’s phylogenetic distribution is widespread in eukaryotes, but is apparently absent in some notable model organisms. Our conclusion from the distribution of vaults is that they were present in the last eukaryote common ancestor but they have apparently been lost from a number of groups including fungi, insects, and probably plants. Our approach of inferring ancestral 3D and quaternary structures is expected to be useful generally.
PMCID: PMC3762200  PMID: 23887922
vault ribonucleoprotein; ancestral reconstruction (ASR); BLAST; I-TASSER; RosettaDock; last eukaryotic common ancestor
9.  Rewriting Evolution—“Been There, Done That” 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2013;5(5):819-821.
A recent paper by a science journalist in Nature shows major errors in understanding phylogenies, in this case of placental mammals. The underlying unrooted tree is probably correct, but the placement of the root just reflects a well-known error from the acceleration in the rate of evolution among some myomorph rodents.
PMCID: PMC3673624  PMID: 23558594
placental mammals; phylogeny errors; rates of evolution
10.  Beyond BLASTing: Tertiary and Quaternary Structure Analysis Helps Identify Major Vault Proteins 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2012;5(1):217-232.
We examine the advantages of going beyond sequence similarity and use both protein three-dimensional (3D) structure prediction and then quaternary structure (docking) of inferred 3D structures to help evaluate whether comparable sequences can fold into homologous structures with sufficient lateral associations for quaternary structure formation. Our test case is the major vault protein (MVP) that oligomerizes in multiple copies to form barrel-like vault particles and is relatively widespread among eukaryotes. We used the iterative threading assembly refinement server (I-TASSER) to predict whether putative MVP sequences identified by BLASTp and PSI Basic Local Alignment Search Tool are structurally similar to the experimentally determined rodent MVP tertiary structures. Then two identical predicted quaternary structures from I-TASSER are analyzed by RosettaDock to test whether a pair-wise association occurs, and hence whether the oligomeric vault complex is likely to form for a given MVP sequence. Positive controls for the method are the experimentally determined rat (Rattus norvegicus) vault X-ray crystal structure and the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) MVP sequence that forms experimentally observed vaults. These and two kinetoplast MVP structural homologs were predicted with high confidence value, and RosettaDock predicted that these MVP sequences would dock laterally and therefore could form oligomeric vaults. As the negative control, I-TASSER did not predict an MVP-like structure from a randomized rat MVP sequence, even when constrained to the rat MVP crystal structure (PDB:2ZUO), thus further validating the method. The protocol identified six putative homologous MVP sequences in the heterobolosean Naegleria gruberi within the excavate kingdom. Two of these sequences are predicted to be structurally similar to rat MVP, despite being in excess of 300 residues shorter. The method can be used generally to help test predictions of homology via structural analysis.
PMCID: PMC3595041  PMID: 23275487
homology modeling; BLAST; I-TASSER; RosettaDock; Naegleria gruberi
11.  The Q2 Mitochondrial Haplogroup in Oceania 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(12):e52022.
Many details surrounding the origins of the peoples of Oceania remain to be resolved, and as a step towards this we report seven new complete mitochondrial genomes from the Q2a haplogroup, from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Kiribati. This brings the total to eleven Q2 genomes now available. The Q haplogroup (that includes Q2) is an old and diverse lineage in Near Oceania, and is reasonably common; within our sample set of 430, 97 are of the Q haplogroup. However, only 8 are Q2, and we report 7 here. The tree with all complete Q genomes is proven to be minimal. The dating estimate for the origin of Q2 (around 35 Kya) reinforces the understanding that humans have been in Near Oceania for tens of thousands of years; nevertheless the Polynesian maternal haplogroups remain distinctive. A major focus now, with regard to Polynesian ancestry, is to address the differences and timing of the ‘Melanesian’ contribution to the maternal and paternal lineages as people moved further and further into Remote Oceania. Input from other fields such as anthropology, history and linguistics is required for a better understanding and interpretation of the genetic data.
PMCID: PMC3527380  PMID: 23284859
12.  Human-Specific Histone Methylation Signatures at Transcription Start Sites in Prefrontal Neurons 
PLoS Biology  2012;10(11):e1001427.
Mapping histone methylation landscapes in neurons from human, chimpanzee, and macaque brains reveals coordinated, human-specific epigenetic regulation at hundreds of regulatory sequences.
Cognitive abilities and disorders unique to humans are thought to result from adaptively driven changes in brain transcriptomes, but little is known about the role of cis-regulatory changes affecting transcription start sites (TSS). Here, we mapped in human, chimpanzee, and macaque prefrontal cortex the genome-wide distribution of histone H3 trimethylated at lysine 4 (H3K4me3), an epigenetic mark sharply regulated at TSS, and identified 471 sequences with human-specific enrichment or depletion. Among these were 33 loci selectively methylated in neuronal but not non-neuronal chromatin from children and adults, including TSS at DPP10 (2q14.1), CNTN4 and CHL1 (3p26.3), and other neuropsychiatric susceptibility genes. Regulatory sequences at DPP10 and additional loci carried a strong footprint of hominid adaptation, including elevated nucleotide substitution rates and regulatory motifs absent in other primates (including archaic hominins), with evidence for selective pressures during more recent evolution and adaptive fixations in modern populations. Chromosome conformation capture at two neurodevelopmental disease loci, 2q14.1 and 16p11.2, revealed higher order chromatin structures resulting in physical contact of multiple human-specific H3K4me3 peaks spaced 0.5–1 Mb apart, in conjunction with a novel cis-bound antisense RNA linked to Polycomb repressor proteins and downregulated DPP10 expression. Therefore, coordinated epigenetic regulation via newly derived TSS chromatin could play an important role in the emergence of human-specific gene expression networks in brain that contribute to cognitive functions and neurological disease susceptibility in modern day humans.
Author Summary
Primate and human genomes comprise billions of base pairs, but we are unlikely to gain a deeper understanding of brain functions unique to human (including cognitive abilities and psychiatric diseases) merely by comparing linear DNA sequences. Such determinants of species-specific function might instead be found in the so-called “epigenetic” characteristics of genomic regions; differences in the protein-packaged chromatin state in which genomic DNA exists in the cell. Here, we examine neurons from the prefrontal cortex, a brain region closely associated with the evolution of the primate brain, and identify hundreds of short DNA sequences defined by human-specific changes in chromatin structure and function when compared to non-human primates. These changes included species-specific regulation of methylation marks on the histone proteins around which genomic DNA is wrapped. Sequences subject to human-specific epigenetic regulation showed significant spatial clustering, and despite being separated by hundreds of thousands of base pairs on the linear genome, were in direct physical contact with each other through chromosomal looping and other higher order chromatin features. This observation raises the intriguing possibility that coordinated epigenetic regulation via newly derived chromatin features at gene transcription start sites could play an important role in the emergence of human-specific gene expression networks in the brain. Finally, we identified a strong genetic footprint of hominid evolution in a small subset of transcription start sites defined by human-specific gains in histone methylation, with particularly strong enrichment in prefrontal cortex neurons. For example, the base pair sequence of DPP10 (a gene critically important for normal human brain development) not only showed distinct human-specific changes, but also evidence for more recent selective pressures within the human population.
PMCID: PMC3502543  PMID: 23185133
13.  MicroRNA-Driven Developmental Remodeling in the Brain Distinguishes Humans from Other Primates 
PLoS Biology  2011;9(12):e1001214.
Comparison of human, chimpanzee, and macaque brain transcriptomes reveals a significant developmental remodeling in the human prefrontal cortex, potentially shaped by microRNA.
While multiple studies have reported the accelerated evolution of brain gene expression in the human lineage, the mechanisms underlying such changes are unknown. Here, we address this issue from a developmental perspective, by analyzing mRNA and microRNA (miRNA) expression in two brain regions within macaques, chimpanzees, and humans throughout their lifespan. We find that constitutive gene expression divergence (species differences independent of age) is comparable between humans and chimpanzees. However, humans display a 3–5 times faster evolutionary rate in divergence of developmental patterns, compared to chimpanzees. Such accelerated evolution of human brain developmental patterns (i) cannot be explained by life-history changes among species, (ii) is twice as pronounced in the prefrontal cortex than the cerebellum, (iii) preferentially affects neuron-related genes, and (iv) unlike constitutive divergence does not depend on cis-regulatory changes, but might be driven by human-specific changes in expression of trans-acting regulators. We show that developmental profiles of miRNAs, as well as their target genes, show the fastest rates of human-specific evolutionary change, and using a combination of computational and experimental methods, we identify miR-92a, miR-454, and miR-320b as possible regulators of human-specific neural development. Our results suggest that different mechanisms underlie adaptive and neutral transcriptome divergence, and that changes in the expression of a few key regulators may have been a major driving force behind rapid evolution of the human brain.
Author Summary
Species evolution is often depicted as a slow and continuous process punctuated by rapid changes. One example of the latter is the evolution of human cognition–emergence of an exceedingly complex phenotype within a few million years. What genetic mechanisms might have driven this process? Nearly 40 years ago, it was proposed that human-specific gene expression changes, rather than changes in protein sequence, might underlie human cognitive evolution. Here we compare gene expression throughout postnatal brain development in humans, chimpanzees, and macaques. We find that simple changes in gene expression levels, plausibly driven by mutations in cis-regulatory elements, accumulate at similar rates in all three evolutionary lineages. What sharply distinguishes humans from other species is change in the timing and shape of developmental expression patterns. This is particularly pronounced in the prefrontal cortex, where 4-fold more genes show more human-specific developmental changes than chimpanzee-specific ones. Notably, our results indicate that this massive developmental remodeling of the human cortex, which affects hundreds of genes, might be driven by expression changes of only a few key regulators, such as microRNAs. Genes affected by this remodeling are preferentially associated with neural activity, thereby suggesting a link to the evolution of human cognition.
PMCID: PMC3232219  PMID: 22162950
14.  Characterization of RNase MRP RNA and novel snoRNAs from Giardia intestinalis and Trichomonas vaginalis 
BMC Genomics  2011;12:550.
Eukaryotic cells possess a complex network of RNA machineries which function in RNA-processing and cellular regulation which includes transcription, translation, silencing, editing and epigenetic control. Studies of model organisms have shown that many ncRNAs of the RNA-infrastructure are highly conserved, but little is known from non-model protists. In this study we have conducted a genome-scale survey of medium-length ncRNAs from the protozoan parasites Giardia intestinalis and Trichomonas vaginalis.
We have identified the previously 'missing' Giardia RNase MRP RNA, which is a key ribozyme involved in pre-rRNA processing. We have also uncovered 18 new H/ACA box snoRNAs, expanding our knowledge of the H/ACA family of snoRNAs.
Results indicate that Giardia intestinalis and Trichomonas vaginalis, like their distant multicellular relatives, contain a rich infrastructure of RNA-based processing. From here we can investigate the evolution of RNA processing networks in eukaryotes.
PMCID: PMC3228867  PMID: 22053856
15.  Systematic Error in Seed Plant Phylogenomics 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2011;3:1340-1348.
Resolving the closest relatives of Gnetales has been an enigmatic problem in seed plant phylogeny. The problem is known to be difficult because of the extent of divergence between this diverse group of gymnosperms and their closest phylogenetic relatives. Here, we investigate the evolutionary properties of conifer chloroplast DNA sequences. To improve taxon sampling of Cupressophyta (non-Pinaceae conifers), we report sequences from three new chloroplast (cp) genomes of Southern Hemisphere conifers. We have applied a site pattern sorting criterion to study compositional heterogeneity, heterotachy, and the fit of conifer chloroplast genome sequences to a general time reversible + G substitution model. We show that non-time reversible properties of aligned sequence positions in the chloroplast genomes of Gnetales mislead phylogenetic reconstruction of these seed plants. When 2,250 of the most varied sites in our concatenated alignment are excluded, phylogenetic analyses favor a close evolutionary relationship between the Gnetales and Pinaceae—the Gnepine hypothesis. Our analytical protocol provides a useful approach for evaluating the robustness of phylogenomic inferences. Our findings highlight the importance of goodness of fit between substitution model and data for understanding seed plant phylogeny.
PMCID: PMC3237385  PMID: 22016337
compositional heterogeneity; heterotachy; Gnetales; systematic error
16.  Genomic Analysis of Hepatitis B Virus Reveals Antigen State and Genotype as Sources of Evolutionary Rate Variation 
Viruses  2011;3(2):83-101.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) genomes are small, semi-double-stranded DNA circular genomes that contain alternating overlapping reading frames and replicate through an RNA intermediary phase. This complex biology has presented a challenge to estimating an evolutionary rate for HBV, leading to difficulties resolving the evolutionary and epidemiological history of the virus. Here, we re-examine rates of HBV evolution using a novel data set of 112 within-host, transmission history (pedigree) and among-host genomes isolated over 20 years from the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific, combined with 313 previously published HBV genomes. We employ Bayesian phylogenetic approaches to examine several potential causes and consequences of evolutionary rate variation in HBV. Our results reveal rate variation both between genotypes and across the genome, as well as strikingly slower rates when genomes are sampled in the Hepatitis B e antigen positive state, compared to the e antigen negative state. This Hepatitis B e antigen rate variation was found to be largely attributable to changes during the course of infection in the preCore and Core genes and their regulatory elements.
PMCID: PMC3136878  PMID: 21765983
hepatitis B virus; molecular clock; Bayesian phylogenetics
17.  Darwin's Theory of Descent with Modification, versus the Biblical Tree of Life 
PLoS Biology  2011;9(7):e1001096.
PMCID: PMC3130011  PMID: 21750664
19.  Genomic Analysis of Hepatitis B Virus Reveals Antigen State and Genotype as Sources of Evolutionary Rate Variation 
Viruses  2011;3(2):83-101.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) genomes are small, semi-double-stranded DNA circular genomes that contain alternating overlapping reading frames and replicate through an RNA intermediary phase. This complex biology has presented a challenge to estimating an evolutionary rate for HBV, leading to difficulties resolving the evolutionary and epidemiological history of the virus. Here, we re-examine rates of HBV evolution using a novel data set of 112 within-host, transmission history (pedigree) and among-host genomes isolated over 20 years from the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific, combined with 313 previously published HBV genomes. We employ Bayesian phylogenetic approaches to examine several potential causes and consequences of evolutionary rate variation in HBV. Our results reveal rate variation both between genotypes and across the genome, as well as strikingly slower rates when genomes are sampled in the Hepatitis B e antigen positive state, compared to the e antigen negative state. This Hepatitis B e antigen rate variation was found to be largely attributable to changes during the course of infection in the preCore and Core genes and their regulatory elements.
PMCID: PMC3136878  PMID: 21765983
hepatitis B virus; molecular clock; Bayesian phylogenetics
20.  Genomic DNA Sequences from Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants 
PLoS Biology  2010;8(12):e1000564.
This study compares three extant elephants species - forest, savanna, and Asian - to extinct mammoth and mastodon. Surprisingly, forest and savanna elephants in Africa today are as distinct from each other as mammoth and Asian elephants.
To elucidate the history of living and extinct elephantids, we generated 39,763 bp of aligned nuclear DNA sequence across 375 loci for African savanna elephant, African forest elephant, Asian elephant, the extinct American mastodon, and the woolly mammoth. Our data establish that the Asian elephant is the closest living relative of the extinct mammoth in the nuclear genome, extending previous findings from mitochondrial DNA analyses. We also find that savanna and forest elephants, which some have argued are the same species, are as or more divergent in the nuclear genome as mammoths and Asian elephants, which are considered to be distinct genera, thus resolving a long-standing debate about the appropriate taxonomic classification of the African elephants. Finally, we document a much larger effective population size in forest elephants compared with the other elephantid taxa, likely reflecting species differences in ancient geographic structure and range and differences in life history traits such as variance in male reproductive success.
Author Summary
The living elephants are the last survivors of a once highly successful mammalian order, the Proboscidea, which includes extinct species such as the iconic woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and the American mastodon (Mammut americanum). Despite numerous studies, the phylogenetic relationships of the modern elephants to the woolly mammoth, as well as the taxonomic status of the African elephants of the genus Loxodonta, remain controversial. This is in large part due to the fact that both the woolly mammoth and the American mastodon (the closest outgroup to elephants and mammoths available for genetic studies) are extinct, posing considerable technical hurdles for comparative genetic analysis. We have used a combination of modern DNA sequencing and targeted PCR amplification to obtain a large data set for comparing American mastodon, woolly mammoth, Asian elephant, African savanna elephant, and African forest elephant. We unequivocally establish that the Asian elephant is the sister species to the woolly mammoth. A surprising finding from our study is that the divergence of African savanna and forest elephants—which some have argued to be two populations of the same species—is about as ancient as the divergence of Asian elephants and mammoths. Given their ancient divergence, we conclude that African savanna and forest elephants should be classified as two distinct species.
PMCID: PMC3006346  PMID: 21203580
21.  Ancient DNA from European Early Neolithic Farmers Reveals Their Near Eastern Affinities 
PLoS Biology  2010;8(11):e1000536.
The first farmers from Central Europe reveal a genetic affinity to modern-day populations from the Near East and Anatolia, which suggests a significant demographic input from this area during the early Neolithic.
In Europe, the Neolithic transition (8,000–4,000 b.c.) from hunting and gathering to agricultural communities was one of the most important demographic events since the initial peopling of Europe by anatomically modern humans in the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 b.c.). However, the nature and speed of this transition is a matter of continuing scientific debate in archaeology, anthropology, and human population genetics. To date, inferences about the genetic make up of past populations have mostly been drawn from studies of modern-day Eurasian populations, but increasingly ancient DNA studies offer a direct view of the genetic past. We genetically characterized a population of the earliest farming culture in Central Europe, the Linear Pottery Culture (LBK; 5,500–4,900 calibrated b.c.) and used comprehensive phylogeographic and population genetic analyses to locate its origins within the broader Eurasian region, and to trace potential dispersal routes into Europe. We cloned and sequenced the mitochondrial hypervariable segment I and designed two powerful SNP multiplex PCR systems to generate new mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal data from 21 individuals from a complete LBK graveyard at Derenburg Meerenstieg II in Germany. These results considerably extend the available genetic dataset for the LBK (n = 42) and permit the first detailed genetic analysis of the earliest Neolithic culture in Central Europe (5,500–4,900 calibrated b.c.). We characterized the Neolithic mitochondrial DNA sequence diversity and geographical affinities of the early farmers using a large database of extant Western Eurasian populations (n = 23,394) and a wide range of population genetic analyses including shared haplotype analyses, principal component analyses, multidimensional scaling, geographic mapping of genetic distances, and Bayesian Serial Simcoal analyses. The results reveal that the LBK population shared an affinity with the modern-day Near East and Anatolia, supporting a major genetic input from this area during the advent of farming in Europe. However, the LBK population also showed unique genetic features including a clearly distinct distribution of mitochondrial haplogroup frequencies, confirming that major demographic events continued to take place in Europe after the early Neolithic.
Author Summary
The transition from a hunter–gatherer existence to a sedentary farming-based lifestyle has had key consequences for human groups around the world and has profoundly shaped human societies. Originating in the Near East around 11,000 y ago, an agricultural lifestyle subsequently spread across Europe during the New Stone Age (Neolithic). Whether it was mediated by incoming farmers or driven by the transmission of innovative ideas and techniques remains a subject of continuing debate in archaeology, anthropology, and human population genetics. Ancient DNA from the earliest farmers can provide a direct view of the genetic diversity of these populations in the earliest Neolithic. Here, we compare Neolithic haplogroups and their diversity to a large database of extant European and Eurasian populations. We identified Neolithic haplotypes that left clear traces in modern populations, and the data suggest a route for the migrating farmers that extends from the Near East and Anatolia into Central Europe. When compared to indigenous hunter–gatherer populations, the unique and characteristic genetic signature of the early farmers suggests a significant demographic input from the Near East during the onset of farming in Europe.
PMCID: PMC2976717  PMID: 21085689
22.  Tracking Marsupial Evolution Using Archaic Genomic Retroposon Insertions 
PLoS Biology  2010;8(7):e1000436.
Genome-wide comparisons of shared retroposon insertion patterns resolve the phylogeny of marsupials, clearly distinguishing South American and Australian species and lending support to Didelphimorphia as the basal split.
The Australasian and South American marsupial mammals, such as kangaroos and opossums, are the closest living relatives to placental mammals, having shared a common ancestor around 130 million years ago. The evolutionary relationships among the seven marsupial orders have, however, so far eluded resolution. In particular, the relationships between the four Australasian and three South American marsupial orders have been intensively debated since the South American order Microbiotheria was taxonomically moved into the group Australidelphia. Australidelphia is significantly supported by both molecular and morphological data and comprises the four Australasian marsupial orders and the South American order Microbiotheria, indicating a complex, ancient, biogeographic history of marsupials. However, the exact phylogenetic position of Microbiotheria within Australidelphia has yet to be resolved using either sequence or morphological data analysis. Here, we provide evidence from newly established and virtually homoplasy-free retroposon insertion markers for the basal relationships among marsupial orders. Fifty-three phylogenetically informative markers were retrieved after in silico and experimental screening of ∼217,000 retroposon-containing loci from opossum and kangaroo. The four Australasian orders share a single origin with Microbiotheria as their closest sister group, supporting a clear divergence between South American and Australasian marsupials. In addition, the new data place the South American opossums (Didelphimorphia) as the first branch of the marsupial tree. The exhaustive computational and experimental evidence provides important insight into the evolution of retroposable elements in the marsupial genome. Placing the retroposon insertion pattern in a paleobiogeographic context indicates a single marsupial migration from South America to Australia. The now firmly established phylogeny can be used to determine the direction of genomic changes and morphological transitions within marsupials.
Author Summary
Ever since the first Europeans reached the Australian shores and were fascinated by the curious marsupials they found, the evolutionary relationships between the living Australian and South American marsupial orders have been intensively investigated. However, neither the morphological nor the more recent molecular methods produced an evolutionary consensus. Most problematic of the seven marsupial groups is the South American species Dromiciops gliroides, the only survivor of the order Microbiotheria. Several studies suggest that Dromiciops, although living in South America, is more closely related to Australian than to South American marsupials. This relationship would have required a complex migration scenario whereby several groups of ancestral South American marsupials migrated across Antarctica to Australia. We screened the genomes of the South American opossum and the Australian tammar wallaby for retroposons, unambiguous phylogenetic markers that occupy more than half of the marsupial genome. From analyses of nearly 217,000 retroposon-containing loci, we identified 53 retroposons that resolve most branches of the marsupial evolutionary tree. Dromiciops is clearly only distantly related to Australian marsupials, supporting a single Gondwanan migration of marsupials from South America to Australia. The new phylogeny offers a novel perspective in understanding the morphological and molecular transitions between the South American and Australian marsupials.
PMCID: PMC2910653  PMID: 20668664
23.  Index-Free De Novo Assembly and Deconvolution of Mixed Mitochondrial Genomes 
Second-generation sequencing technology has allowed a very large increase in sequencing throughput. In order to make use of this high throughput, we have developed a pipeline for sequencing and de novo assembly of multiple mitochondrial genomes without the costs of indexing. Simulation studies on a mixture of diverse animal mitochondrial genomes showed that mitochondrial genomes could be reassembled from a high coverage of short (35 nt) reads, such as those generated by a second-generation Illumina Genome Analyzer. We then assessed this experimentally with long-range polymerase chain reaction products from mitochondria of a human, a rat, a bird, a frog, an insect, and a mollusc. Comparison with reference genomes was used for deconvolution of the assembled contigs rather than for mapping of sequence reads. As proof of concept, we report the complete mollusc mitochondrial genome of an olive shell (Amalda northlandica). It has a very unusual putative control region, which contains a structure that would probably only be detectable by next-generation sequencing. The general approach has considerable potential, especially when combined with indexed sequencing of different groups of genomes.
PMCID: PMC2997550  PMID: 20624744
multiplex sequencing; informatic deconvolution; control region; noncomplementary; molluscs
24.  Phylogenetic Tree Reconstruction Accuracy and Model Fit when Proportions of Variable Sites Change across the Tree 
Systematic Biology  2010;59(3):288-297.
Commonly used phylogenetic models assume a homogeneous process through time in all parts of the tree. However, it is known that these models can be too simplistic as they do not account for nonhomogeneous lineage-specific properties. In particular, it is now widely recognized that as constraints on sequences evolve, the proportion and positions of variable sites can vary between lineages causing heterotachy. The extent to which this model misspecification affects tree reconstruction is still unknown. Here, we evaluate the effect of changes in the proportions and positions of variable sites on model fit and tree estimation. We consider 5 current models of nucleotide sequence evolution in a Bayesian Markov chain Monte Carlo framework as well as maximum parsimony (MP). We show that for a tree with 4 lineages where 2 nonsister taxa undergo a change in the proportion of variable sites tree reconstruction under the best-fitting model, which is chosen using a relative test, often results in the wrong tree. In this case, we found that an absolute test of model fit is a better predictor of tree estimation accuracy. We also found further evidence that MP is not immune to heterotachy. In addition, we show that increased sampling of taxa that have undergone a change in proportion and positions of variable sites is critical for accurate tree reconstruction.
PMCID: PMC2850392  PMID: 20525636
Covarion model; heterotachy; model fit; phylogenetics; simulation; taxon sampling
25.  A Predominantly Neolithic Origin for European Paternal Lineages 
PLoS Biology  2010;8(1):e1000285.
Most present-day European men inherited their Y chromosomes from the farmers who spread from the Near East 10,000 years ago, rather than from the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic.
The relative contributions to modern European populations of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers from the Near East have been intensely debated. Haplogroup R1b1b2 (R-M269) is the commonest European Y-chromosomal lineage, increasing in frequency from east to west, and carried by 110 million European men. Previous studies suggested a Paleolithic origin, but here we show that the geographical distribution of its microsatellite diversity is best explained by spread from a single source in the Near East via Anatolia during the Neolithic. Taken with evidence on the origins of other haplogroups, this indicates that most European Y chromosomes originate in the Neolithic expansion. This reinterpretation makes Europe a prime example of how technological and cultural change is linked with the expansion of a Y-chromosomal lineage, and the contrast of this pattern with that shown by maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests a unique role for males in the transition.
Author Summary
Arguably the most important cultural transition in the history of modern humans was the development of farming, since it heralded the population growth that culminated in our current massive population size. The genetic diversity of modern populations retains the traces of such past events, and can therefore be studied to illuminate the demographic processes involved in past events. Much debate has focused on the origins of agriculture in Europe some 10,000 years ago, and in particular whether its westerly spread from the Near East was driven by farmers themselves migrating, or by the transmission of ideas and technologies to indigenous hunter-gatherers. This study examines the diversity of the paternally inherited Y chromosome, focusing on the commonest lineage in Europe. The distribution of this lineage, the diversity within it, and estimates of its age all suggest that it spread with farming from the Near East. Taken with evidence on the origins of other lineages, this indicates that most European Y chromosomes descend from Near Eastern farmers. In contrast, most maternal lineages descend from hunter-gatherers, suggesting a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the cultural transition from hunting-gathering to farming.
PMCID: PMC2799514  PMID: 20087410

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