Shattering DNA May Have Let Gibbons Evolve New Species
by Colin Barras
Gibbons have such strange, scrambled DNA, it looks like someone has taken a hammer to it. Their genome has been massively reshuffled, and some biologists say that could be how new gibbon species evolved.
Gibbons are apes, and were the first to break away from the line that led to humans. There are around 16 living gibbon species, in four genera. They all have small bodies, long arms and no tails. But it’s what gibbons don’t share that is most unusual. Each species carries a distinct number of chromosomes in its genome: some species have just 38 pairs, some as many as 52 pairs.
"This ‘genome plasticity’ has always been a mystery," says Wesley Warren of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. It is almost as if the genome exploded and was then pieced back together in the wrong order.
To understand why, Warren and his colleagues have now produced the first draft of a gibbon genome. It comes from a female northern white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) called Asia…
(read more: New Scientist)
image: Heather Angel/Natural Visions

Shattering DNA May Have Let Gibbons Evolve New Species

by Colin Barras

Gibbons have such strange, scrambled DNA, it looks like someone has taken a hammer to it. Their genome has been massively reshuffled, and some biologists say that could be how new gibbon species evolved.

Gibbons are apes, and were the first to break away from the line that led to humans. There are around 16 living gibbon species, in four genera. They all have small bodies, long arms and no tails. But it’s what gibbons don’t share that is most unusual. Each species carries a distinct number of chromosomes in its genome: some species have just 38 pairs, some as many as 52 pairs.

"This ‘genome plasticity’ has always been a mystery," says Wesley Warren of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. It is almost as if the genome exploded and was then pieced back together in the wrong order.

To understand why, Warren and his colleagues have now produced the first draft of a gibbon genome. It comes from a female northern white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) called Asia…

(read more: New Scientist)

image: Heather Angel/Natural Visions

Vampire Plant Also Sucks Hosts Genes, While Feeding

by Tanya Lewis

Like an herbivorous Count Dracula, a snakelike vine coils around its leafy victim, punctures its stem and proceeds to suck out its life juices.

The parasitic plant Cuscuta pentagona, commonly known as strangleweed or dodder, preys on many common crop plants. Not only does the parasite siphon water and nutrients from its host, but it also exchanges genetic messages with its victim, according to a study detailed today (Aug. 15) in the journal Science.

The findings reveal a new way that plants communicate with each other, and the study may help scientists understand how to combat parasitic plants that destroy food crops around the world, the researchers said.

(via: Live Science)

This Extreme Antarctic Insect Has the Tiniest Genome
by Stephanie Pappas
The Antarctic midge is a simple insect: no wings, a slender black body and an adult life span of not much more than a week.
So perhaps it’s fitting the bug is now on record as the owner of the tiniest insect genome ever sequenced. At just 99 million base pairs of nucleotides (DNA’s building blocks), the midge’s genome is smaller than that of the body louse — and far more miniscule than the human genome, which has 3.2 billion base pairs.
(Though the midge’s genome still dwarfs the smallest of all genomes on record, which belongs to a bacterium that lives inside insects and contains just 160,000 base pairs.)…
(read more: Live Science)
photograph: Richard E. Lee, Jr.

This Extreme Antarctic Insect Has the Tiniest Genome

by Stephanie Pappas

The Antarctic midge is a simple insect: no wings, a slender black body and an adult life span of not much more than a week.

So perhaps it’s fitting the bug is now on record as the owner of the tiniest insect genome ever sequenced. At just 99 million base pairs of nucleotides (DNA’s building blocks), the midge’s genome is smaller than that of the body louse — and far more miniscule than the human genome, which has 3.2 billion base pairs.

(Though the midge’s genome still dwarfs the smallest of all genomes on record, which belongs to a bacterium that lives inside insects and contains just 160,000 base pairs.)…

(read more: Live Science)

photograph: Richard E. Lee, Jr.

Tiny Newly Discovered Frog From Brazil Given Heroic Name
The Atlantic Forest is a hotspot of biodiversity and one of the most species richness biome of anurans (frogs, tree-frogs, and toads) in the world. However, current levels of diversity might be still underestimated.
In the past few years has been an increase in the description of new endemic species of this biome along with the advance of molecular techniques and availability of samples for DNA analysis.
Using a more extensive number of samples for molecular and morphological analysis, researchers from the University of Richmond and The George Washington University described a tiny new species of narrow-mouthed frog from the Microhylidae family in the open access journal ZooKeys.
Chiasmocleis quilombola occurs in the Atlantic Forest of the Espírito Santo State, southeastern Brazil. Despite its modest size, adults reach only about 14 mm, the new species bears a heroic name inspired by the quilombos communities typical of the Espírito Santo State in Brazil, where the frogs were collected…
(read more: Science Daily)
Credit: João F. R. Tonini; CC-BY 4.0

Tiny Newly Discovered Frog From Brazil Given Heroic Name

The Atlantic Forest is a hotspot of biodiversity and one of the most species richness biome of anurans (frogs, tree-frogs, and toads) in the world. However, current levels of diversity might be still underestimated.

In the past few years has been an increase in the description of new endemic species of this biome along with the advance of molecular techniques and availability of samples for DNA analysis.

Using a more extensive number of samples for molecular and morphological analysis, researchers from the University of Richmond and The George Washington University described a tiny new species of narrow-mouthed frog from the Microhylidae family in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Chiasmocleis quilombola occurs in the Atlantic Forest of the Espírito Santo State, southeastern Brazil. Despite its modest size, adults reach only about 14 mm, the new species bears a heroic name inspired by the quilombos communities typical of the Espírito Santo State in Brazil, where the frogs were collected…

(read more: Science Daily)

Credit: João F. R. Tonini; CC-BY 4.0

CURRENT WORK IN HERPETOLOGY:
How amphibians crossed continents: DNA helps piece together 300-million-year journey
Source: George Washington University
A professor at GWU has succeeded in constructing a first-of-its-kind comprehensive diagram of the geographic distribution of amphibians, showing the movement of 3,309 species between 12 global ecoregions. Armed with DNA sequence data, he sought to accurately piece together the 300-million-year storyline of their journey…
(read more: Science Daily)
photo: Pseudophilautus poppiae, a microendemic shrub frog from Southern Sri Lanka that only occurs in a few hectares of cloud forest. (Credit: Alex Pyron)

CURRENT WORK IN HERPETOLOGY:

How amphibians crossed continents: DNA helps piece together 300-million-year journey

Source: George Washington University

A professor at GWU has succeeded in constructing a first-of-its-kind comprehensive diagram of the geographic distribution of amphibians, showing the movement of 3,309 species between 12 global ecoregions. Armed with DNA sequence data, he sought to accurately piece together the 300-million-year storyline of their journey…

(read more: Science Daily)

photo: Pseudophilautus poppiae, a microendemic shrub frog from Southern Sri Lanka that only occurs in a few hectares of cloud forest. (Credit: Alex Pyron)

Elephants Have 2000 Genes for Smell - Most Ever Found
We’ve long known that African elephants have a great sense of smell—but a new study shows that the large mammals have truly superior schnozzes.
by Christine Dell’Amore
Compared with 13 other mammal species studied, African elephants have the most genes related to smell: 2,000.
That’s the most ever discovered in an animal—more than twice the number of olfactory genes in domestic dogs and five times more than in humans, who have about 400, according to research published July 22 in the journal Genome Research. The previous record-holder was rats, which have about 1,200 genes dedicated to smell.
Why so many? “We don’t know the real reason,” study leader Yoshihito Niimura, a molecular evolutionist at the University of Tokyo, said by email. But it’s likely related to the importance of smell to the poorly sighted African elephant in interpreting and navigating its environment…
(read more: National Geographic)
photograph by João Nuno Gonçalves

Elephants Have 2000 Genes for Smell - Most Ever Found

We’ve long known that African elephants have a great sense of smell—but a new study shows that the large mammals have truly superior schnozzes.

by Christine Dell’Amore

Compared with 13 other mammal species studied, African elephants have the most genes related to smell: 2,000.

That’s the most ever discovered in an animal—more than twice the number of olfactory genes in domestic dogs and five times more than in humans, who have about 400, according to research published July 22 in the journal Genome ResearchThe previous record-holder was rats, which have about 1,200 genes dedicated to smell.

Why so many? “We don’t know the real reason,” study leader Yoshihito Niimura, a molecular evolutionist at the University of Tokyo, said by email. But it’s likely related to the importance of smell to the poorly sighted African elephant in interpreting and navigating its environment…

(read more: National Geographic)

photograph by João Nuno Gonçalves

scienceyoucanlove
libutron:

The feared and fascinating Jack Jumper Ant - the metazoan with the lowest possible number of chromosomes
The Australian Jack Jumper Ant, Myrmecia pilosula (Formicidae), with its 12 mm length, large eyes, and long mandibles with teeth, is an aggressive ant with a very potent sting. 
The sting is not severe (in terms of pain), but this ant is responsible for greater than 90% of Australian ant venom allergy. In Tasmania stings by M. pilosula (and possible the Inchman ant, M. forficate) caused 21–-25% of the 324 cases of anaphylaxis treated with adrenaline in the Royal Hobart Hospital Emergency Department between 1990 and 1998, compared with 13% caused by honeybee stings.
Moreover, what I personally find fascinating is the fact that ants of the Myrmecia pilosula species complex include some individuals with the lowest possible metazoan chromosome number of 2n = 2, although others in this cluster of sibling species have much higher numbers, the known maximum being 2n = 32.
If we also consider that males are haploid (they have a single set of chromosomes in the nucleus of their cells), as in other Hymenoptera, the somatic cells of males contain only a single chromosome.
Other common names: Jumper Ant, Hopper Ant, Jumping Jack, Bull Ant.
References: [1] - [2] - [3]
Photo: ©Arthur Chapman
Locality: Falcons Lookout Track, Werribee Gorge State Park, near Ballan, Victoria, Australia 

libutron:

The feared and fascinating Jack Jumper Ant - the metazoan with the lowest possible number of chromosomes

The Australian Jack Jumper Ant, Myrmecia pilosula (Formicidae), with its 12 mm length, large eyes, and long mandibles with teeth, is an aggressive ant with a very potent sting. 

The sting is not severe (in terms of pain), but this ant is responsible for greater than 90% of Australian ant venom allergy. In Tasmania stings by M. pilosula (and possible the Inchman ant, M. forficate) caused 21–-25% of the 324 cases of anaphylaxis treated with adrenaline in the Royal Hobart Hospital Emergency Department between 1990 and 1998, compared with 13% caused by honeybee stings.

Moreover, what I personally find fascinating is the fact that ants of the Myrmecia pilosula species complex include some individuals with the lowest possible metazoan chromosome number of 2n = 2, although others in this cluster of sibling species have much higher numbers, the known maximum being 2n = 32.

If we also consider that males are haploid (they have a single set of chromosomes in the nucleus of their cells), as in other Hymenoptera, the somatic cells of males contain only a single chromosome.

Other common names: Jumper Ant, Hopper Ant, Jumping Jack, Bull Ant.

References: [1] - [2] - [3]

Photo: ©Arthur Chapman

Locality: Falcons Lookout Track, Werribee Gorge State Park, near Ballan, Victoria, Australia 

Longevity Diet: 
Researchers unmask a gene that protects C. elegans from lifespan-shrinking metabolic byproducts.
by Rina Shaikh-Lesko
vidence that diet can profoundly affect aging is beginning to emerge, sometimes through targeted studies and other times by accident. While breeding mutant C. elegans worms for an unrelated experiment, Sean Curran and Shanshan Pang, a pair of researchers who study aging at the University of Southern California, noticed that certain mutant worms had considerably shorter life spans depending on their diet. The findings led the two to uncover a compensatory molecular mechanism for dealing with different menu items…
(read more: The Scientist)

Longevity Diet: 

Researchers unmask a gene that protects C. elegans from lifespan-shrinking metabolic byproducts.

by Rina Shaikh-Lesko

vidence that diet can profoundly affect aging is beginning to emerge, sometimes through targeted studies and other times by accident. While breeding mutant C. elegans worms for an unrelated experiment, Sean Curran and Shanshan Pang, a pair of researchers who study aging at the University of Southern California, noticed that certain mutant worms had considerably shorter life spans depending on their diet. The findings led the two to uncover a compensatory molecular mechanism for dealing with different menu items…

(read more: The Scientist)

SCIENCE:  A tale of two crows Despite frequently exchanging their genes in two distinct zones in Europe where their ranges overlap, the all-black carrion crow and the gray-coated hooded crow maintain very different plumages. 
Now, a new study suggests that the genetic differences keeping these two species separate are limited to less than one percent of the birds’ genomes. 
To explore what keeps the two phenotypically distinct, Jelmer Poelstra and colleagues compared the genomes of 60 crows — some Corvus corone and others Corvus cornix — from their so-called hybrid (or overlapping range) zones in Europe and found that varied expression of just a few genes (less than 0.28 percent of the entire genome) was enough to maintain different coloration between the two species…
read the paper here:  http://bit.ly/1soUVBS 
Image: Wikicommons

SCIENCE:  A tale of two crows

Despite frequently exchanging their genes in two distinct zones in Europe where their ranges overlap, the all-black carrion crow and the gray-coated hooded crow maintain very different plumages.

Now, a new study suggests that the genetic differences keeping these two species separate are limited to less than one percent of the birds’ genomes.

To explore what keeps the two phenotypically distinct, Jelmer Poelstra and colleagues compared the genomes of 60 crows — some Corvus corone and others Corvus cornix — from their so-called hybrid (or overlapping range) zones in Europe and found that varied expression of just a few genes (less than 0.28 percent of the entire genome) was enough to maintain different coloration between the two species…

read the paper here:  http://bit.ly/1soUVBS

Image: Wikicommons

Redwood National and State Parks - CA, USA
One fascinating habit of coast redwoods is the fact that they can clone themselves! 
Burls are masses or bumps of dormant sprout tissue that wait until the right moment to sprout. Usually, those right moments occur after the tree is damaged. Trees that come from burl sprouts have an advantage in that they use the parent tree’s root system, allowing them to grow higher faster than if they were to start from seed. Unlike their seed-started counterparts, the trees that grew from burls are the exact copy of their parent tree—right down to the DNA!

One fascinating habit of coast redwoods is the fact that they can clone themselves!

Burls are masses or bumps of dormant sprout tissue that wait until the right moment to sprout. Usually, those right moments occur after the tree is damaged. Trees that come from burl sprouts have an advantage in that they use the parent tree’s root system, allowing them to grow higher faster than if they were to start from seed. Unlike their seed-started counterparts, the trees that grew from burls are the exact copy of their parent tree—right down to the DNA!

Geneticist George Church tinkers with DNA to fight disease, create new biofuels, and perhaps even resurrect extinct species.

In the future, George Church believes, almost everything will be better because of genetics. If you have a medical problem, your doctor will be able to customize a treatment based on your specific DNA pattern.

When you fill up your car, you won’t be draining the world’s dwindling supply of crude oil, because the fuel will come from microbes that have been genetically altered to produce biofuel.

When you visit the zoo, you’ll be able to take your children to the woolly mammoth or passenger pigeon exhibits, because these animals will no longer be extinct. You’ll be able to do these things, that is, if the future turns out the way Church envisions it—and he’s doing everything he can to see that it does…

Resurrection: The American Chestnut Is Set for a Genetically Modified Revival
by Andy Coghlan
The near-extinct American chestnut looks set to make a comeback. Genetically modified trees, which are resistant to a deadly fungus that has decimated the species, have produced the first resistant chestnuts. From these seeds, countless resistant trees could be grown in the wild.

An estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) once covered the US, accounting for a quarter of all US hardwood trees. But in around 1900, a lethal fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica was accidentally imported in chestnut trees from Asia, and by the 1950s it had almost completely wiped out the American chestnut.

Over the past 20 years, the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project has been trying to turn the situation around. Led by William Powell and Charles Maynard of the State University of New York in Syracuse, the team has used genetic engineering to create a strain of fungus-resistant chestnuts called Darling4.
The modified trees contain a gene from wheat called OxO, which makes an enzyme called oxalate oxidase that destroys the toxic oxalic acid made by the fungus, preventing cankers from forming on the tree. By-products from the enzyme’s action help the tree’s own natural defences to fight off the fungus…
(read more: New Scientist)
photograph by Klaus Lang/Corbis

Resurrection: The American Chestnut Is Set for a Genetically Modified Revival

by Andy Coghlan

The near-extinct American chestnut looks set to make a comeback. Genetically modified trees, which are resistant to a deadly fungus that has decimated the species, have produced the first resistant chestnuts. From these seeds, countless resistant trees could be grown in the wild.

An estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) once covered the US, accounting for a quarter of all US hardwood trees. But in around 1900, a lethal fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica was accidentally imported in chestnut trees from Asia, and by the 1950s it had almost completely wiped out the American chestnut.

Over the past 20 years, the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project has been trying to turn the situation around. Led by William Powell and Charles Maynard of the State University of New York in Syracuse, the team has used genetic engineering to create a strain of fungus-resistant chestnuts called Darling4.

The modified trees contain a gene from wheat called OxO, which makes an enzyme called oxalate oxidase that destroys the toxic oxalic acid made by the fungus, preventing cankers from forming on the tree. By-products from the enzyme’s action help the tree’s own natural defences to fight off the fungus…

(read more: New Scientist)

photograph by Klaus Lang/Corbis

Why Fly? Flightless Bird Mystery Solved, Say Evolutionary Scientists
Ostriches, emus, moas, and other flightless birds of the world evolved flightlessness separately.
by Allison Fromme
Large flightless birds are scattered across all but one of the world’s southern continents. Since Darwin’s era, people have wondered: How are they related?
Ostriches, emus, cassowaries, rheas, and kiwis can’t fly. Unlike most birds, their flat breastbones lack the keel that anchors the strong pectoral muscles required for flight. Their puny wings can’t possibly lift their heavy bodies off the ground. These flightless birds, called ratites, are clearly different from other avian species.
Darwin noticed, and he predicted that ratites were related to each other. His contemporary, Thomas Huxley, found another commonality among them: The arrangement of bones in the roofs of their mouths appeared more reptile-like than that of other birds.
At about the same time, another biologist, Richard Owen, assembled the remains of a giant ostrich-like fossil skeleton, the first extinct moa known to the western world. But a pesky detail puzzled Huxley: Small, ground-dwelling South American tinamous didn’t seem to fit neatly with the ratites or other birds…
(read more: National Geo)
photo: Christian Ziegler, National Geo

Why Fly? Flightless Bird Mystery Solved, Say Evolutionary Scientists

Ostriches, emus, moas, and other flightless birds of the world evolved flightlessness separately.

by Allison Fromme

Large flightless birds are scattered across all but one of the world’s southern continents. Since Darwin’s era, people have wondered: How are they related?

Ostriches, emus, cassowaries, rheas, and kiwis can’t fly. Unlike most birds, their flat breastbones lack the keel that anchors the strong pectoral muscles required for flight. Their puny wings can’t possibly lift their heavy bodies off the ground. These flightless birds, called ratites, are clearly different from other avian species.

Darwin noticed, and he predicted that ratites were related to each other. His contemporary, Thomas Huxley, found another commonality among them: The arrangement of bones in the roofs of their mouths appeared more reptile-like than that of other birds.

At about the same time, another biologist, Richard Owen, assembled the remains of a giant ostrich-like fossil skeleton, the first extinct moa known to the western world. But a pesky detail puzzled Huxley: Small, ground-dwelling South American tinamous didn’t seem to fit neatly with the ratites or other birds…

(read more: National Geo)

photo: Christian Ziegler, National Geo

Scientists uncover new marine mammal genus, represented by single endangered species 
by Jeremy Hance
This is the story of three seals: the Caribbean, the Hawaiian, and the Mediterranean monk seals. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the Caribbean monk seal was a hugely abundant marine mammal found across the Caribbean, and even recorded by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage, whose men killed several for food. Less than 500 years later the species would be extinct—due to overhunting. But scientists have long wondered how the extinct Caribbean monk seal was related to other monk seals: was it more closely related to the Mediterranean species or the Hawaiian one? Now, researchers have an answer and a new seal genus, as well. 
"Our paper is the first to firmly solve this riddle, both by producing and analyzing the first DNA evidence from the Caribbean monk seal, and by examining the anatomy of large series of monk seal specimens in museums, mostly from the Smithsonian," co-author and mammalogist Kristofer Helgen with the Smithsonian Institute told mongabay.com. "The answer is that the Caribbean monk seal is most closely related to the Hawaiian monk seal, demonstrating that the New World monk seals form a group to the exclusion of the Mediterranean monk seal." 
In fact, the New World monk seals are so genetically distinct—and physically different—from the Mediterranean monk seal that the researchers have proposed a new genus for the Caribbean and Hawaiian species: Neomonachus. Prior to this all three species were listed under one genus, Monachus…
(read more: MongaBay)
illustration of Caribbean Monk Seal by Peter Shouten

Scientists uncover new marine mammal genus, represented by single endangered species

by Jeremy Hance

This is the story of three seals: the Caribbean, the Hawaiian, and the Mediterranean monk seals. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the Caribbean monk seal was a hugely abundant marine mammal found across the Caribbean, and even recorded by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage, whose men killed several for food. Less than 500 years later the species would be extinct—due to overhunting. But scientists have long wondered how the extinct Caribbean monk seal was related to other monk seals: was it more closely related to the Mediterranean species or the Hawaiian one? Now, researchers have an answer and a new seal genus, as well. 

"Our paper is the first to firmly solve this riddle, both by producing and analyzing the first DNA evidence from the Caribbean monk seal, and by examining the anatomy of large series of monk seal specimens in museums, mostly from the Smithsonian," co-author and mammalogist Kristofer Helgen with the Smithsonian Institute told mongabay.com. "The answer is that the Caribbean monk seal is most closely related to the Hawaiian monk seal, demonstrating that the New World monk seals form a group to the exclusion of the Mediterranean monk seal." 

In fact, the New World monk seals are so genetically distinct—and physically different—from the Mediterranean monk seal that the researchers have proposed a new genus for the Caribbean and Hawaiian species: Neomonachus. Prior to this all three species were listed under one genus, Monachus…

(read more: MongaBay)

illustration of Caribbean Monk Seal by Peter Shouten