Science Friday: A Molecular Biology & Evolution Sampler

My favorite subject-specific journal is Molecular Biology and Evolution (MBE).  This journal publishes on topics primarily related to molecular evolution and evolutionary genomics, which are among my favorite subjects in biology. I’m happy to report that the latest issue of MBE is out today, and there are lots of great articles that I think will be of interest to folks here, many of which are open-access.

I sadly don’t have time to write up any of these articles, but I thought it might be useful to “sample” a few in case any any of you would like to read and discuss them.  Here are a handful that seem particularly interesting:

Population Structure Shapes Copy Number Variation in Malaria Parasites (open-access)


If copy number variants (CNVs) are predominantly deleterious, we would expect them to be more efficiently purged from populations with a large effective population size (Ne) than from populations with a small Ne. Malaria parasites (Plasmodium falciparum) provide an excellent organism to examine this prediction, because this protozoan shows a broad spectrum of population structures within a single species, with large, stable, outbred populations in Africa, small unstable inbred populations in South America and with intermediate population characteristics in South East Asia. We characterized 122 single-clone parasites, without prior laboratory culture, from malaria-infected patients in seven countries in Africa, South East Asia and South America using a high-density single-nucleotide polymorphism/CNV microarray. We scored 134 high-confidence CNVs across the parasite exome, including 33 deletions and 102 amplifications, which ranged in size from <500 bp to 59 kb, as well as 10,107 flanking, biallelic single-nucleotide polymorphisms. Overall, CNVs were rare, small, and skewed toward low frequency variants, consistent with the deleterious model. Relative to African and South East Asian populations, CNVs were significantly more common in South America, showed significantly less skew in allele frequencies, and were significantly larger. On this background of low frequency CNV, we also identified several high-frequency CNVs under putative positive selection using an FST outlier analysis. These included known adaptive CNVs containing rh2b and pfmdr1, and several other CNVs (e.g., DNA helicase and three conserved proteins) that require further investigation. Our data are consistent with a significant impact of genetic structure on CNV burden in an important human pathogen.

No Accumulation of Transposable Elements in Asexual Arthropods (open-access)


Transposable elements (TEs) and other repetitive DNA can accumulate in the absence of recombination, a process contributing to the degeneration of Y-chromosomes and other nonrecombining genome portions. A similar accumulation of repetitive DNA is expected for asexually reproducing species, given their entire genome is effectively nonrecombining. We tested this expectation by comparing the whole-genome TE loads of five asexual arthropod lineages and their sexual relatives, including asexual and sexual lineages of crustaceans (Daphnia water fleas), insects (Leptopilina wasps), and mites (Oribatida). Surprisingly, there was no evidence for increased TE load in genomes of asexual as compared to sexual lineages, neither for all classes of repetitive elements combined nor for specific TE families. Our study therefore suggests that nonrecombining genomes do not accumulate TEs like nonrecombining genomic regions of sexual lineages. Even if a slight but undetected increase of TEs were caused by asexual reproduction, it appears to be negligible compared to variance between species caused by processes unrelated to reproductive mode. It remains to be determined if molecular mechanisms underlying genome regulation in asexuals hamper TE activity. Alternatively, the differences in TE dynamics between nonrecombining genomes in asexual lineages versus nonrecombining genome portions in sexual species might stem from selection for benign TEs in asexual lineages because of the lack of genetic conflict between TEs and their hosts and/or because asexual lineages may only arise from sexual ancestors with particularly low TE loads.


Evolution of Prdm Genes in Animals: Insights from Comparative Genomics (open-access)


Prdm genes encode transcription factors with a subtype of SET domain known as the PRDF1-RIZ (PR) homology domain and a variable number of zinc finger motifs. These genes are involved in a wide variety of functions during animal development. As most Prdm genes have been studied in vertebrates, especially in mice, little is known about the evolution of this gene family. We searched for Prdm genes in the fully sequenced genomes of 93 different species representative of all the main metazoan lineages. A total of 976 Prdm genes were identified in these species. The number of Prdm genes per species ranges from 2 to 19. To better understand how the Prdm gene family has evolved in metazoans, we performed phylogenetic analyses using this large set of identified Prdm genes. These analyses allowed us to define 14 different subfamilies of Prdm genes and to establish, through ancestral state reconstruction, that 11 of them are ancestral to bilaterian animals. Three additional subfamilies were acquired during early vertebrate evolution (Prdm5, Prdm11, and Prdm17). Several gene duplication and gene loss events were identified and mapped onto the metazoan phylogenetic tree. By studying a large number of nonmetazoan genomes, we confirmed that Prdm genes likely constitute a metazoan-specific gene family. Our data also suggest that Prdm genes originated before the diversification of animals through the association of a single ancestral SET domain encoding gene with one or several zinc finger encoding genes.

This next one is on a topic that comes up here from time to time, and I think it will be of interest to many of you.  Sadly, it’s paywalled, but if you don’t have access through a university library, feel free to send me a pm.

Are Human Translated Pseudogenes Functional?


By definition, pseudogenes are relics of former genes that no longer possess biological functions. Operationally, they are identified based on disruptions of open reading frames (ORFs) or presumed losses of promoter activities. Intriguingly, a recent human proteomic study reported peptides encoded by 107 pseudogenes. These peptides may play currently unrecognized physiological roles. Alternatively, they may have resulted from accidental translations of pseudogene transcripts and possess no function. Comparing between human and macaque orthologs, we show that the nonsynonymous to synonymous substitution rate ratio (ω) is significantly smaller for translated pseudogenes than other pseudogenes. In particular, five of 34 translated pseudogenes amenable to evolutionary analysis have ω values significantly lower than 1, indicative of the action of purifying selection. This and other findings demonstrate that some but not all translated pseudogenes have selected functions at the protein level. Hence, neither ORF disruption nor presence of protein product disproves or proves gene functionality at the protein level.

There are a lot of other interesting papers in this issue, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll stop here.  Happy reading!

205 thoughts on “Science Friday: A Molecular Biology & Evolution Sampler

  1. So what about reprogramming that RAM in the cell, eh?

    the identity of a cell is determined by its constituent components, such as proteins, RNA and lipids. These in turn arise from specific transcriptional programmes. Such programmes are formed by the presence of gene regulatory networks that are modulated by site-specific transcriptional regulators, non-coding RNAs, chromatin-binding proteins, DNA methyltransferases, histone-modifying enzymes and other regulators of gene expression. Unlike a genetic mutation, which is irreversible, transcriptional programmes can be flexible and reversible. The transfer of the genome of a differentiated cell into an unfertilized oocyte erases the transcriptional programme of the somatic cell and initiates an embryonic transcriptional programme7, 8. How this reprogramming process occurs has remained unclear. Much of the work that has been directed towards an understanding of the establishment of transcriptional programmes during development and towards explaining nuclear reprogramming after nuclear transfer has focused on the epigenome — the post-translational modifications of histones and the methylation of DNA9, 10, 11, 12 (Box 1).

    Here is a diagram with the histones being processed from the above paper. You see those little wires connecting the histone memory devices? That’s DNA.

    This depicts just a fraction of the reading and processing machinery of the histones. This is just a few of the 4000 sorts of possible machine processes that histones can induce at a promoter site. That’s just one of the possible reading complexes that can be assembled about a histone.

    To quote Clint Eastwood in the movie Firefox: “What a machine!

  2. stcordova,

    This is just a few of the 4000 sorts of possible machine processes that histones can induce at a promoter site.

    Are we still talking about junk proportions? What percentage of the genome is taken up by promoter sites?

  3. Rumraket,

    Now you just need to start posting pictures of fishing reel schematics and it’s game over.

    They actually do look like fishing reels. Or film canisters. Or floppy drives.

  4. Allan Miller:
    Are we still talking about junk proportions? What percentage of the genome is taken up by promoter sites?

    Amazing how a few pictures of fishing reels can derail a discussion.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.