September 20, 2008

Who suffers from stress?

Recently, I wrote about how grooming each other can reduce levels of stress hormones, for example, in baboons and birds. But I asked, “why should natural selection allow excessive levels of this stress hormone?�
This week’s paper shows one way that natural selection can lead to harmful levels of stress hormones. The question, of course, is “harmful to whom?�

Writing in American Naturalist, Oliver Love and Tony Williams report that stressed mother birds pass stress hormones to their offspring. (Passing your stress on to others seems to be popular in humans also.) These hormones increase the risk of chicks dying, especially male chicks. But they may also increase the mother’s lifetime reproductive success.

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June 29, 2008

Evolution 2008: sexy plants, battling bacteria, durable cooperation

About 1500 scientists attended Evolution 2008 here last week. The four-day meeting was filled with 15-minute talks (usually ten at once, in different rooms), plus two evening poster sessions (like a science fair, for grownups, with discussions rather than judging), scenically located on a pedestrian bridge over the Mississippi. Reports that “scientists are abandoning evolution�? appear to be exaggerated.

Here are summaries of some of the talks I enjoyed.

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February 18, 2008

Natural enemies complicate reproductive tradeoffs

Semelparous plants and animals are those that reproduce only once, whether after a few months of growth (annual plants, like wheat) or after years (“century plant� or most salmon). Iteroparous species iterate. That is, they reproduce repeatedly. For example, perennial grasses may produce seeds every year for a decade or more.

One reason this difference matters is that perennial crops may have some environmental benefits, relative to annual crops. Plowing, traditionally more common with annual than perennial crops, can greatly increase soil erosion, especially on steep slopes. So there is increasing interest in developing perennial grain crops as an alternative to wheat.

However, perennial plants have lower seed yield than their annual relatives, so we would need to devote more land to agriculture to get the same amount of grain. One reason for the yield difference is that an annual plant can transfer most of the carbon (energy) and nitrogen (needed for protein) from its leaves, stem, and roots into its seeds. It’s going to die anyway, so the next generation gets its accumulated wealth. A perennial plant needs to hold back some carbon and nitrogen for winter survival and spring regrowth. The more resources it puts into this year’s seed production, the less it can carry forward to support reproduction next year.

This week’s paper shows that iteroparous plants face additional costs when they reproduce, namely, ecological costs. “Herbivore-mediated ecological costs of reproduction shape the life history of an iteroparous plant� was written by Tom Miller and colleagues at the University of Nebraska (where I’ll be speaking on Darwinian Agriculture in April) and published in American Naturalist.

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September 27, 2007

Cooperation and cheating in microbes: quorum sensing and persisters

Two papers on cooperation this week. If you were trying to help someone, but end up causing problems for them, were you being cooperative? I have no idea, so I like to study cooperation in microbes. Microbes don't have brains, so "intent" isn't a factor. And the only definition of "benefit" that makes sense is an increase in Darwinian fitness or reproductive success, which is often easy to measure in microbes; just count them.
I like these definitions:

Cooperation: a behaviour which provides a benefit to another individual (recipient), and which is selected for because of its beneficial effect on the recipient. [Exhaling CO2 isn't cooperation; it evolved as a side-effect of breathing oxygen, not to benefit plants.]
Cheaters: individuals who do not cooperate (or cooperate less than their fair share), but are potentially able to gain the benefit of others cooperating. ["Equal share" might be less ambiguous.]

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September 20, 2007

Menopause trade-offs

Why do women, in contrast to our closest relatives, stop giving birth while they are still relatively young and healthy? This week's paper. "Testing Evolutionary Theories of Menopause", by Daryl Shanley and coauthors, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, uses data from people living in The Gambia to test two different hypotheses.

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August 17, 2007

Almost a no-brainer

How sophisticated behavior would you expect from an animal with a brain as small as a wasp's? Few, if any, female wasps have read David Lack's classic paper on the optimum number of eggs to lay, or even John Dennehy's clear summary of it. This week's paper asks whether they, nonetheless, adjust egg numbers optimally in response to competition from other wasps and resource availability.

"Encountering competitors reduces clutch size and increases offspring size in a parasitoid with female–female fighting" was written by Marlene Goubault, Alexandra Mack, and Ian Hardy, of the University of Nottingham, and published in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

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June 24, 2007

Trade-offs in defense against retroviruses

I have written about evolutionary trade-offs before, starting with early posts about trade-offs between seed size and seed number in plants, and trade-offs between the ability of insects to escape predators by flying away, versus the ability to hide from them by playing dead. I have also given some examples of the increasing use of sophisticated experimental (often molecular) methods in evolutionary biology. This week's paper combines both themes.

The paper is "Restriction of an extinct retrovirus by the human TRIM5-alpha antiviral protein" by Shari Kaiser, Harmit Malik, and Michael Emerman, published in Science (vol.316 p.1756).

Retroviruses are made of RNA, but make DNA copies of themselves that can insert into the DNA of host cells they infect. HIV, the cause of AIDS, is a well-known example, but there are many others. If DNA copies of the retrovirus are inserted into cells giving rise to sperm or eggs, they can be passed to the next generation, as endogenous retroviruses. If the DNA inserts somewhere where it turns an important gene on or off, it may kill the host. Or, once in a while, this change may turn out to be beneficial. The few beneficial changes are the ones that survive and spread, just as the few mutations that are beneficial are the ones that persist.

VWXYNot has an interesting discussion of how a creationist web site misused one of her papers as evidence of "intelligent design." She shows how shared endoviruses can be used to infer shared ancestry, providing yet more evidence that we share a recent ancestor with apes, less-recent ancestors with monkeys, etc. But that's not what this week's paper is about....

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April 06, 2007

Darwinian agriculture I

Next week, I'm speaking at a one-day symposium on "Darwinian Agriculture: the evolutionary ecology of agricultural symbiosis", in Wageningen, The Netherlands. So, instead of reviewing a recent paper, this week I'm going to discuss some of the not-quite-so-recent papers on which my talk will be based. The following week, I plan to summarize some of the talks I hear at the meeting.

I may do the same thing in August, when my grad students and I speak at the much larger Ecological Society of America meetings in San Jose, California. Feel free to comment if you feel cheated of your weekly paper review, and I might reconsider. The Evolution meetings are in Christchurch, New Zealand, this year, but my grant won't stretch that far.

"Darwinian Agriculture: when can humans find solutions beyond the reach of natural selection?" was the title of a paper that Toby Kiers, Stuart West, and I published in 2003. Our answers to the title question suggested how increased understanding of past and ongoing evolution could improve: 1) breeding of crops and livestock, and 2) design of agricultural ecosystems.

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February 20, 2007

Evolutionary trade-offs: how are soybeans like salmon?

Answer: they're both semelparous (reproduce once, then die), so evolutionary trade-offs between number and size of offspring are expected to be similar.

This week's paper is "Evolutionary aspects of the trade-off between seed size and number in crops" (Field Crops Research 100:125-138) by Victor Sadras. You can read the abstract on the web for free. For the full version, you can pay $30 to download, visit your nearest agricultural research library (in the U.S., often at a state university), or email the author at: My discussion is mostly based on a shorter version presented at the Australian Agronomy Conference.

Demand for grain is increasing, to feed growing human and livestock populations and more recently for ethanol production. Unless those trends are reversed, we will either need to expand the land area used for agriculture or increase grain yields per unit area. Grain yield is the product of plants per area, seeds per plant, and weight per seed. Unfortunately, increasing any one of these (by increasing seeding rate, or through plant breeding) tends to decrease the others.

This paper looks at how natural selection (in the wild ancestors of crop plants and in fish) and plant breeding (especially in maize and sunflower) shape trade-offs between seed number per plant and seed size. The similar patterns in plants and fish show that, as predicted by the relevant aspects of evolutionary theory, we are dealing with fundamental constraints that we are unlikely to change.

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