Sexual selection: Do females follow fads?

Is this male attired in the fashionable look of the season? Based on the reaction of the female in the background, perhaps not. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Timeline, 2008: Sexual selection is a mechanism of evolution that sometimes butts heads with natural selection. Under the tenets of natural selection, nature chooses based on characteristics that confer a competitive edge in a given environment. Under this construct, environment is “the decider.” But in sexual selection, either competition between the same sex or a choice made by the opposite sex determines the traits that persist. Sometimes, such traits aren’t so useful when it comes to the everyday ho-hum activities like foraging for food or avoiding predators, but they can be quite successful at catching the eye of an interested female.

Those female opinions have long been considered unchanging. In the widowbird, for example, having long, flowing black tailfeathers is a great way to attract the lady widow birds. But perhaps they don’t call them widowbirds for nothing: if those male tailfeathers get too long, the bird can’t escape easily from predators and ends up a meal instead of a mate. In these cases, natural selection pushes the tailfeather trait in one direction—shorter—while sexual selection urges it the other way—longer. The upshot is a middling area for tailfeathers length.

This kind of intersexual selection occurs throughout the animal kingdom. Probably the most well-recognized pair that engages in it is the peacock and peahen. Everyone has seen the multicolored baggage any peacock worth his plumage drags around behind him. A peacock will fan out those feathers in an impressive demonstration, strutting back and forth and waving its tail in the wind, showing off for all he’s worth. It’s a successful tactic as long as nothing is around that wants to eat him.

Frogs hoping for a mate find themselves elbow deep in the “paradox of the lek.” The lek is the breeding roundup for frogs, where they all assemble in a sort of amphibian prom. For the males, it’s a tough call, literally. They must call loudly enough to show the females how beautifully androgenized they are—androgens determine the power of their larynx—while at the same time not standing out enough to attract one of the many predators inevitably drawn to a gathering of hundreds of croaking frogs. Trapped in this paradox, the frog does his best, but natural selection and sexual selection again end up stabilizing the trait within expected grooves.

This status quo has become the expectation for many biologists who study sexual selection: natural selection may alter its choices with a shifting environment, but what’s hot to the females stays hot, environmental changes notwithstanding. But the biologists had never taken a close look at the lark bunting.

A male lark bunting has a few traits that may attract females: when it shakes off its drab winter plumage and takes on the glossy black of mating season, the male bird also sports white patches on its wings that flash through the sky and sings a song intended to draw in the ladies. But the ladies appear to be slaves to fashion, not consistently choosing large patches over small, or large bodies over lighter ones. Instead, female lark buntings change their choices with the seasons, selecting a large male one year, a dark-colored male with little in the way of patches the next, and a small-bodied male the next. Lark buntings select a new mate each year, and the choice appears to be linked to how well the male will aid in parenting duties, which both parents share. It may be that a big body is useful in a year of many predators, but a small body might work out better when food supplies are low.

The researchers who uncovered this secret of lark bunting female fickleness watched the birds for five years and based their findings on statistical correlations only. For this reason, they don’t know exactly what drives the females’ annually varying choices, but they speculate that environmental factors play a role. Thus, sexual selection steps away from the realm of the static and becomes more like—possibly almost indistinguishable from—natural selection.

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An author reading today

Doing my author reading at the library today with my friend Charles Darwin on the screen

Today, I did my first reading/teaching presentation from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology. Below are a couple of excerpts from what I read today.

From Chapter 16: Darwin, Natural Selection, and Evolution

Evolution, a change in a population over time, can be a controversial concept, and things were no different when Darwin first proposed his theory of how evolution happens. Since that time, we’ve identified several other ways by which evolution can occur. Scientists have synthesized natural selection and genetics and worked out a way to identify if evolution is happening in a population.

The Historical Context of Darwin’s Ideas

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, into a society with fixed ideas about the role of divinity–specifically the Christian God–in nature. Darwin’s destiny, as it turned out, was to address nature’s role in nature, rather than God’s. He was not completely comfortable in some respects with that destiny, but this man was born with his ear to the ground, listening to Nature’s heartbeat. He was born to bring to us a greater understanding of how nature fashions living things.

Yet, he did not emerge into a howling wilderness of antiscientific resistance. Scientists and philosophers who had come before him had posited bits and pieces of what would become Darwin’s own theory of how evolution happens. But it required Charles Darwin to synthesize those bits and pieces–some of them his own, gathered on the significant voyage of his lifetime–to bring us a complete idea of how nature shapes new species from existing life.

Alfred Russel Wallace: The Unknown Darwin

Alfred Russel Wallace developed the theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin. His road to enlightenment came via his observations on another island chain, the Malay Archipelago. Like Darwin, Wallace was a naturalist savant, and on this archipelago alone, he managed to collect and describe tens of thousands of beetle specimens. He, too, had read Malthus and under that influence had begun to formulate ideas very similar to Darwin’s. The British scientific community of the nineteenth century was a relatively small world, and Wallace and Darwin knew one another. In fact, they knew each other well enough to co-present their ideas about natural selection and evolution in 1858.

Nevertheless, Wallace did not achieve Darwin’s profile in the field of evolution and thus today does not have his name inscribed inside a fish-shaped car decal. The primary reason is likely that Darwin literally wrote the book on the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Wallace, on the other hand, published a best seller on the Malay Archipelago.

From Chapter 13: DNA

DNA, as the central molecule of heredity, is key to many aspects of our lives (besides, obviously, encoding our genes). Medicines and therapies are based on it. TV shows and movies practically feature it as a main character. We profile it from before we’re born until after we die, using it to figure out what’s wrong, what’s right, what’s what when it comes to who we are, and what makes us different and the same.

But it wasn’t so long ago that we weren’t even sure that DNA was the molecule of heredity, and it was even more recently that we finally started unlocking the secrets of how its genetic material is copied for passing along to offspring.

The History and Romance of DNA

The modern-day DNA story is dynamic and fascinating. But it can’t compare to the tale of the trials, tribulations, and downright open hostilities that accompanied our recognition of its significance.

Griffith and His Mice

Our understanding started with mice. In the 1920s, a British medical officer named Frederick Griffith performed a series of important experiments. His goal was to figure out the active factor in a strain of bacteria that could give mice pneumonia and kill them.

His bacteria of choice were Streptococcus pneumoniae, available in two strains. One strain infects and kills mice and thus is pathogenic, or disease causing. These bacteria also have a protein capsule enclosing each cell, leading to their designation as the Smooth, or S, strain. The other strain is the R, or rough, strain because it lacks a capsule. The R strain also is not deadly.

Wondering whether or not the S strain’s killer abilities would survive the death of the bacteria themselves, he first heat-killed the S strain bacteria. (Temperature changes can cause molecules to unravel and become nonfunctional, “killing” them.) He then injected his mice with the dead germs. The mice stayed perky and alive. Griffith mixed the dead, heat-killed S strain bacteria with the living, R-strain bacteria and injected the mice again. Those ill-fated animals died. Griffith found living S strain cells in these rodents that had never been injected with live S strain bacteria.

With dead mice all around him, Griffith had discovered that something in the pathogenic S strain had survived the heat death. The living R strain bacteria had picked up that something, leading to their transformation into the deadly, pathogenic S strain in the mice. It was 1928, and the question that emerged from his findings was, What is the transforming molecule? What, in other words, is the molecule of heredity?

Hershey and Chase: Hot Viruses

A fiery debate tore through the ranks of molecular biologists and geneticists in the early twentieth century, arguing about whether proteins or DNA were the molecules of heredity. The protein folk had a point. With 20 possible amino acids, proteins offer far more different possible combinations and resulting molecules than do the four letters (nucleotide building blocks) of the DNA alphabet. Protein advocates argued that the molecule with the most building blocks was likely responsible for life’s diversity.

In a way, they were right. Proteins underlie our variation. But they were also fundamentally wrong. Proteins differ because of differences in the molecule that holds the code for building them. And that molecule is DNA.

Like what you’ve read? Read the rest in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology.

Think the eye defies evolutionary theory? Think again

The compound lens of the insect eye

Win for Darwin

When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection, he recognized at the time that the eye might be a problem. In fact, he even said it was “absurd” to think that the complex human eye could have evolved as a result of random mutations and natural selection. Although evolution remains a fact, and natural selection remains a theory, the human eye now has some solid evolutionary precedence. A group of scientists that has established a primitive marine worm, Platynereis dumerilii, as a developmental biology model has found that it provides the key to the evolution of the human—and insect—eye.

Multiple events in eye evolution, or only one?

The divide over the eye occurred because the insects have the familiar compound-lens—think how fly eyesight is depicted—and vertebrates have a single lens. Additionally, insects use rhabdomeric photoreceptors, and vertebrates have a type known as ciliary receptors. The rhabdomeric receptors increase surface area in the manner of our small intestine—by having finger-like extensions of the cell. The ciliary cells have a hairy appearance because of cilia that pop outward from the cell. A burning question in evolutionary biology was how these two very different kinds of eyes with different types of photoreceptors evolved. Were there multiple events of eye evolution, or just one?

Just once?

P. dumerilii work indicates a single evolutionary event, although the usual scientific caveats in the absence of an eyewitness still apply. This little polychaete worm, a living fossil, hasn’t changed in about 600 million years, and part of its prototypical insect brain responds to light. In this system is a complex of cells that forms three pairs of eyes and has two types of photoreceptor cells. Yep, those two types are the ciliary and the rhabdomeric. This little marine worm has both kinds of receptors, using the rhabdomeric receptors in its little eyes and the ciliary receptors in its brain. Researchers speculate that the light receptors in the brain serve to regulate the animal’s circadian rhythm.

How could the existence of these two types of receptors simultaneously lead to the evolution of two very different kinds of eyes? An ancestral form could have had duplicate copies of one or both genes present. Ultimately, if the second copy of the rhabdomeric receptor gene were recruited to an eye-like structure, evolution continued down the insect path. But, if the second copy of a ciliary cell’s photoreceiving gene were co-opted for another function, and the cells were ultimately recruited from the brain for use in the eye, then evolution marched in the vertebrate direction.

All of the above is completely speculation, although this worm’s light-sensitive molecule, or opsin, is very much like the opsin our own rods and cones make, and the molecular biology strongly indicates a relationship. It doesn’t completely rule out multiple eye-evolution events, but it certainly provides some nice evidence for a common eye ancestor for insects and vertebrates.

Note: This work appeared in 2004 and got a detailed writeup at Pharyngula.

Is the tree of life really a ring?

A proposed ring of life

The tree of life is really a ring

When Darwin proposed his ideas about how new species arise, he produced a metaphor that we still adhere to today to explain the branching patterns of speciation: The Tree of Life. This metaphor for the way one species may branch from another through changes in allele frequencies over time is so powerful and of such long standing that many large studies of the speciation process and of life’s origins carry its name.

It may be time for a name change. In 2004, an astrobiologist and molecular biologist from UCLA found that a ring metaphor may better describe the advent of earliest eukaryotes. Astrobiologists study the origins of life on our planet because of the potential links between these earthly findings and life on other planets. Molecular biologists can be involved in studying the evolutionary patterns and relationships that our molecules—such as DNA or proteins—reveal. Molecular biologist James Lake and astrobiologist Mary Rivera of UCLA teamed up to examine how genomic studies might reveal some clues about the origins of eukaryotes on Earth.

Vertical transfer is so 20th century

We’ve heard of the tree of life, in which one organism begets another, passing on its genes in a vertical fashion, with this vertical transfer of genes producing a tree, with each new production becoming a new branch. The method of gene transfer that would produce a genuine circle, or ring, is horizontal transfer, in which two organisms fuse genomes to produce a new organism. The ends of the branches in this scenario fuse together via their genomes to close the circle. It is this fusion of two genomes that may have produced the eukaryotes.

Here, have some genes

Eukaryotes are cells with true nuclei, like the cells of our bodies. The simplest eukaryotes are the single-celled variety, like yeasts. Before eukaryotes arose, single-celled organisms without nuclei—called prokaryotes—ruled the Earth. We lumped them together in a single kingdom until comparatively recently, when taxonomists broke them into two separate domains, the Archaebacteria and the Eubacteria, with the eukaryotes making up a third. Archaebacteria are prokaryotes with a penchant for difficult living conditions, such as boiling-hot water. Eubacteria include today’s familiar representatives, Escherichia coli.

Genomic fusion

According to the findings of Lake and Rivera, the two prokaryotic domains may have fused genomes to produce the first representatives of the Eukarya domain. By analyzing complex algorithms of genomic relationships among 30 organisms—hailing from each of the three domains—Lake and Rivera produced various family “trees” of life on Earth, and found that the “trees” with the highest cumulative probabilities of having actually occurred really joined in a ring, or a fusion of two prokaryotic branches to form the eukaryotes. Recent research If we did that, the equivalent would be something like walking up to a grizzly bear and hand over some of your genes for it to incorporate. Being eukaryotes, that’s not something we do.

Our bacterial parentage: the union of Archaea and Eubacteria

Although not everyone buys into the “ring of life” concept, their findings help resolve some confusion over the origins of eukaryotes. When we first began analyzing the relationship of nucleated cells to prokaryotes, we identified a number of genes—that we call “informational” genes—that seemed to be directly inherited from the Archaea branch of the Tree of Life. Informational genes are involved in the processes like transcription and translation, and indeed, recent “ring of life” research suggests a greater role for Archaea. But we also found that many eukaryotic genes traced back to the Eubacteria domain, and that these genes were more organizational in nature, being involved in cell metabolism or lipid synthesis.

Applying the tree metaphor did not help resolve this confusion. If eukaryotes vertically inherited these genes from their prokaryotic ancestors, we would expect to see only genes representative of one domain or the other in eukaryotes. But we see both domains represented in the genes, and the best explanation is that organisms from each domain fused entire genomes—horizontally transferring genes—to produce a brand new organism, the progenitor of all eukaryotes: yeasts, trees, giraffes, killer whales, mice, … and us.

Inbreeding in the Darwin dynasty?

Darwin and his wife were first cousins

Charles Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and his own mother was the product of a marriage between third cousins. Given his insights into the relationship among variation, nature’s choices, and adaptation and his observations of weakening in inbred plants, it is no surprise that Darwin worried about his own family’s consanguinity. Did the inbreeding in the Darwin/Wedgwood families show up in his children?

Is marrying your first cousin really so bad?

Had the Darwin/Wedgwoods only engaged in the first-cousin marriage between Charles and Emma, the outcome would likely not have been serious. A 2002 study reported by the National Society of Genetic Counselors found that having first cousins as parents raises the risk of having a significant genetic defect from 3-4% up to about 4-7%. The group concluded that first cousins planning to reproduce require no more intense genetic counseling than unrelated couples.

Consistent consanguinity, on the other hand

But that study didn’t address serial consanguinity of the kind seen in some European royal houses or in the Darwin/Wedgwood families. And a new analysis reported in BioScience avers that the Darwin offspring did experience the repercussions of such inbreeding. Applying an inbreeding coefficient to calculate whether childhood mortality in the Darwin/Wedgwood family across several generations was related to inbreeding, the authors indeed found an association.

Three of the Darwins’ ten children died at age 10 or younger, one of tuberculosis, one of scarlet fever, and one of an unidentified disease. Studies suggest an association between childhood mortality from bacterial infection and consanguinity, and the Darwin family seems to bear that out. In addition, three of the Darwin children who did live to adulthood experienced lengthy marriages without any children, and such infertility may be another manifestation of homozygous states that interfere with reproduction. A photograph of the youngest Darwin child, Charles, who died in toddlerhood, suggests that the baby had some congenital disorder, although the nature of it remains unclear. Emma Darwin was 48 years old when she gave birth to Charles, so Down Syndrome is one likely explanation.

Successful Darwins

In spite of some of the sad facts of the Darwin family story, a few of his children experienced successes of different kinds. Three of his sons were members of the Royal Society, a long-time Darwin family tradition that skipped over the most famous member of the tribe, Charles himself. And Darwin by any measure of fitness did pretty well: in spite of the loss of three children and the infertility of three children, he nevertheless had several grandchildren.

Did Darwin himself suffer from the effects of inbreeding?

Charles Darwin experienced a variety of chronic health conditions, but they do not necessarily seem to have been related to his family’s consanguineous status. Several theories abound to explain his symptoms, which included digestive and skin problems, but no one knows for certain what afflicted the great naturalist. One of the foremost hypotheses is that he had Chagas disease, occurring after a bug bite on one of his voyages transferred an infectious protozoan that may have permanently damaged the scientist’s gut. Stress seems to have exacerbated the problem, whatever its etiology.

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