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1.  RUNX2 tandem repeats and the evolution of facial length in placental mammals 
When simple sequence repeats are integrated into functional genes, they can potentially act as evolutionary ‘tuning knobs’, supplying abundant genetic variation with minimal risk of pleiotropic deleterious effects. The genetic basis of variation in facial shape and length represents a possible example of this phenomenon. Runt-related transcription factor 2 (RUNX2), which is involved in osteoblast differentiation, contains a functionally-important tandem repeat of glutamine and alanine amino acids. The ratio of glutamines to alanines (the QA ratio) in this protein seemingly influences the regulation of bone development. Notably, in domestic breeds of dog, and in carnivorans in general, the ratio of glutamines to alanines is strongly correlated with facial length.
In this study we examine whether this correlation holds true across placental mammals, particularly those mammals for which facial length is highly variable and related to adaptive behavior and lifestyle (e.g., primates, afrotherians, xenarthrans). We obtained relative facial length measurements and RUNX2 sequences for 41 mammalian species representing 12 orders. Using both a phylogenetic generalized least squares model and a recently-developed Bayesian comparative method, we tested for a correlation between genetic and morphometric data while controlling for phylogeny, evolutionary rates, and divergence times. Non-carnivoran taxa generally had substantially lower glutamine-alanine ratios than carnivorans (primates and xenarthrans with means of 1.34 and 1.25, respectively, compared to a mean of 3.1 for carnivorans), and we found no correlation between RUNX2 sequence and face length across placental mammals.
Results of our diverse comparative phylogenetic analyses indicate that QA ratio does not consistently correlate with face length across the 41 mammalian taxa considered. Thus, although RUNX2 might function as a ‘tuning knob’ modifying face length in carnivorans, this relationship is not conserved across mammals in general.
PMCID: PMC3438065  PMID: 22741925
Mammalian evolution; Prognathism; Molecular evolution; Primates; Afrotheria; Xenarthra; Morphology
2.  An updated 18S rRNA phylogeny of tunicates based on mixture and secondary structure models 
Tunicates have been recently revealed to be the closest living relatives of vertebrates. Yet, with more than 2500 described species, details of their evolutionary history are still obscure. From a molecular point of view, tunicate phylogenetic relationships have been mostly studied based on analyses of 18S rRNA sequences, which indicate several major clades at odds with the traditional class-level arrangements. Nonetheless, substantial uncertainty remains about the phylogenetic relationships and taxonomic status of key groups such as the Aplousobranchia, Appendicularia, and Thaliacea.
Thirty new complete 18S rRNA sequences were acquired from previously unsampled tunicate species, with special focus on groups presenting high evolutionary rate. The updated 18S rRNA dataset has been aligned with respect to the constraint on homology imposed by the rRNA secondary structure. A probabilistic framework of phylogenetic reconstruction was adopted to accommodate the particular evolutionary dynamics of this ribosomal marker. Detailed Bayesian analyses were conducted under the non-parametric CAT mixture model accounting for site-specific heterogeneity of the evolutionary process, and under RNA-specific doublet models accommodating the occurrence of compensatory substitutions in stem regions. Our results support the division of tunicates into three major clades: 1) Phlebobranchia + Thaliacea + Aplousobranchia, 2) Appendicularia, and 3) Stolidobranchia, but the position of Appendicularia could not be firmly resolved. Our study additionally reveals that most Aplousobranchia evolve at extremely high rates involving changes in secondary structure of their 18S rRNA, with the exception of the family Clavelinidae, which appears to be slowly evolving. This extreme rate heterogeneity precluded resolving with certainty the exact phylogenetic placement of Aplousobranchia. Finally, the best fitting secondary-structure and CAT-mixture models suggest a sister-group relationship between Salpida and Pyrosomatida within Thaliacea.
An updated phylogenetic framework for tunicates is provided based on phylogenetic analyses using the most realistic evolutionary models currently available for ribosomal molecules and an unprecedented taxonomic sampling. Detailed analyses of the 18S rRNA gene allowed a clear definition of the major tunicate groups and revealed contrasting evolutionary dynamics among major lineages. The resolving power of this gene nevertheless appears limited within the clades composed of Phlebobranchia + Thaliacea + Aplousobranchia and Pyuridae + Styelidae, which were delineated as spots of low resolution. These limitations underline the need to develop new nuclear markers in order to further resolve the phylogeny of this keystone group in chordate evolution.
PMCID: PMC2739199  PMID: 19656395
3.  PhyloExplorer: a web server to validate, explore and query phylogenetic trees 
Many important problems in evolutionary biology require molecular phylogenies to be reconstructed. Phylogenetic trees must then be manipulated for subsequent inclusion in publications or analyses such as supertree inference and tree comparisons. However, no tool is currently available to facilitate the management of tree collections providing, for instance: standardisation of taxon names among trees with respect to a reference taxonomy; selection of relevant subsets of trees or sub-trees according to a taxonomic query; or simply computation of descriptive statistics on the collection. Moreover, although several databases of phylogenetic trees exist, there is currently no easy way to find trees that are both relevant and complementary to a given collection of trees.
We propose a tool to facilitate assessment and management of phylogenetic tree collections. Given an input collection of rooted trees, PhyloExplorer provides facilities for obtaining statistics describing the collection, correcting invalid taxon names, extracting taxonomically relevant parts of the collection using a dedicated query language, and identifying related trees in the TreeBASE database.
PhyloExplorer is a simple and interactive website implemented through underlying Python libraries and MySQL databases. It is available at: and the source code can be downloaded from: .
PMCID: PMC2695458  PMID: 19450253
4.  OrthoMaM: A database of orthologous genomic markers for placental mammal phylogenetics 
Molecular sequence data have become the standard in modern day phylogenetics. In particular, several long-standing questions of mammalian evolutionary history have been recently resolved thanks to the use of molecular characters. Yet, most studies have focused on only a handful of standard markers. The availability of an ever increasing number of whole genome sequences is a golden mine for modern systematics. Genomic data now provide the opportunity to select new markers that are potentially relevant for further resolving branches of the mammalian phylogenetic tree at various taxonomic levels.
The EnsEMBL database was used to determine a set of orthologous genes from 12 available complete mammalian genomes. As targets for possible amplification and sequencing in additional taxa, more than 3,000 exons of length > 400 bp have been selected, among which 118, 368, 608, and 674 are respectively retrieved for 12, 11, 10, and 9 species. A bioinformatic pipeline has been developed to provide evolutionary descriptors for these candidate markers in order to assess their potential phylogenetic utility. The resulting OrthoMaM (Orthologous Mammalian Markers) database can be queried and alignments can be downloaded through a dedicated web interface .
The importance of marker choice in phylogenetic studies has long been stressed. Our database centered on complete genome information now makes possible to select promising markers to a given phylogenetic question or a systematic framework by querying a number of evolutionary descriptors. The usefulness of the database is illustrated with two biological examples. First, two potentially useful markers were identified for rodent systematics based on relevant evolutionary parameters and sequenced in additional species. Second, a complete, gapless 94 kb supermatrix of 118 orthologous exons was assembled for 12 mammals. Phylogenetic analyses using probabilistic methods unambiguously supported the new placental phylogeny by retrieving the monophyly of Glires, Euarchontoglires, Laurasiatheria, and Boreoeutheria. Muroid rodents thus do not represent a basal placental lineage as it was mistakenly reasserted in some recent phylogenomic analyses based on fewer taxa. We expect the OrthoMaM database to be useful for further resolving the phylogenetic tree of placental mammals and for better understanding the evolutionary dynamics of their genomes, i.e., the forces that shaped coding sequences in terms of selective constraints.
PMCID: PMC2249597  PMID: 18053139
5.  Heterotachy and long-branch attraction in phylogenetics 
Probabilistic methods have progressively supplanted the Maximum Parsimony (MP) method for inferring phylogenetic trees. One of the major reasons for this shift was that MP is much more sensitive to the Long Branch Attraction (LBA) artefact than is Maximum Likelihood (ML). However, recent work by Kolaczkowski and Thornton suggested, on the basis of simulations, that MP is less sensitive than ML to tree reconstruction artefacts generated by heterotachy, a phenomenon that corresponds to shifts in site-specific evolutionary rates over time. These results led these authors to recommend that the results of ML and MP analyses should be both reported and interpreted with the same caution. This specific conclusion revived the debate on the choice of the most accurate phylogenetic method for analysing real data in which various types of heterogeneities occur. However, variation of evolutionary rates across species was not explicitly incorporated in the original study of Kolaczkowski and Thornton, and in most of the subsequent heterotachous simulations published to date, where all terminal branch lengths were kept equal, an assumption that is biologically unrealistic.
In this report, we performed more realistic simulations to evaluate the relative performance of MP and ML methods when two kinds of heterogeneities are considered: (i) within-site rate variation (heterotachy), and (ii) rate variation across lineages. Using a similar protocol as Kolaczkowski and Thornton to generate heterotachous datasets, we found that heterotachy, which constitutes a serious violation of existing models, decreases the accuracy of ML whatever the level of rate variation across lineages. In contrast, the accuracy of MP can either increase or decrease when the level of heterotachy increases, depending on the relative branch lengths. This result demonstrates that MP is not insensitive to heterotachy, contrary to the report of Kolaczkowski and Thornton. Finally, in the case of LBA (i.e. when two non-sister lineages evolved faster than the others), ML outperforms MP over a wide range of conditions, except for unrealistic levels of heterotachy.
For realistic combinations of both heterotachy and variation of evolutionary rates across lineages, ML is always more accurate than MP. Therefore, ML should be preferred over MP for analysing real data, all the more so since parametric methods also allow one to handle other types of biological heterogeneities much better, such as among sites rate variation. The confounding effects of heterotachy on tree reconstruction methods do exist, but can be eschewed by the development of mixture models in a probabilistic framework, as proposed by Kolaczkowski and Thornton themselves.
PMCID: PMC1274308  PMID: 16209710
6.  Influence of Tertiary paleoenvironmental changes on the diversification of South American mammals: a relaxed molecular clock study within xenarthrans 
Comparative genomic data among organisms allow the reconstruction of their phylogenies and evolutionary time scales. Molecular timings have been recently used to suggest that environmental global change have shaped the evolutionary history of diverse terrestrial organisms. Living xenarthrans (armadillos, anteaters and sloths) constitute an ideal model for studying the influence of past environmental changes on species diversification. Indeed, extant xenarthran species are relicts from an evolutionary radiation enhanced by their isolation in South America during the Tertiary era, a period for which major climate variations and tectonic events are relatively well documented.
We applied a Bayesian approach to three nuclear genes in order to relax the molecular clock assumption while accounting for differences in evolutionary dynamics among genes and incorporating paleontological uncertainties. We obtained a molecular time scale for the evolution of extant xenarthrans and other placental mammals. Divergence time estimates provide substantial evidence for contemporaneous diversification events among independent xenarthran lineages. This correlated pattern of diversification might possibly relate to major environmental changes that occurred in South America during the Cenozoic.
The observed synchronicity between planetary and biological events suggests that global change played a crucial role in shaping the evolutionary history of extant xenarthrans. Our findings open ways to test this hypothesis further in other South American mammalian endemics like hystricognath rodents, platyrrhine primates, and didelphid marsupials.
PMCID: PMC419338  PMID: 15115541
Mammals; Xenarthrans; Evolution; Palaeontology; Phylogeny; Relaxed molecular clock; Bayesian dating; Global change; Tertiary; South America

Results 1-6 (6)