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    ABSTRACT: Classically, sperm were seen as transcriptionally inactive vehicles for delivering the paternal haplotype to an egg. Yet, it has become apparent that sperm also carry thousands of different RNAs, and the functions of most of these are unknown. Here, we make four novel suggestions for sperm RNA function. First, they could act as relatedness markers facilitating sperm cooperation. Second, they could act as paternally imposed suppressors of haploid interests. Third, they could act as a nuptial gift, providing the female with resources that entice her to fertilise ova using the sperm of the gift-provider. Fourth, they could represent the contents of a Trojan horse, delivered by males to manipulate female reproduction. We discuss these ideas and suggest how they might be tested.
    Trends in Ecology & Evolution 06/2014;
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    ABSTRACT: We present a novel method implementing unbiased high content morphometric cell analysis to classify bacterial effector phenotypes. This clustering methodology represents a significant advance over more qualitative visual approaches and can also be used to classify, and therefore predict the likely function of, unknown effector genes from any microbial genome. As a proof of concept, we use this approach to investigate twenty-three genetic regions predicted to encode anti-macrophage effectors located across the genome of the insect and human pathogen Photorhabdus asymbiotica. Statistical cluster analysis using multiple cellular measures categorised treated macrophage phenotypes into three major groups relating to their putative functionality: a) adhesins b) cytolethal toxins and c) cytomodulating toxins. Further investigation into their effects on phagocytosis revealed that several effectors also modulate this function and the nature of this modulation (increased or decreased phagocytosis) is linked to the phenotype cluster group. Categorising potential functionalities in this way allows rapid functional follow-up of key candidates for more directed cell biological or biochemical investigation. Such an unbiased approach to the classification of candidate effectors will be useful for describing virulence-related regions in a wide range of genomes and will be useful in assigning putative functions to the growing number of microbial genes whose function remains unclear from homology searching.
    Applied and environmental microbiology 12/2013;
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    ABSTRACT: Although disease hosts are classically assumed to interact randomly [1], infection is likely to spread across structured and dynamic contact networks [2]. We used social network analyses to investigate contact patterns of group-living European badgers, Meles meles, which are an important wildlife reservoir of bovine tuberculosis (TB). We found that TB test-positive badgers were socially isolated from their own groups but were more important for flow, potentially of infection, between social groups. The distinctive social position of infected badgers may help explain how social stability mitigates, and social perturbation increases, the spread of infection in badgers.
    Current biology: CB 10/2013; 23(20):R915-6.
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    ABSTRACT: For many animals, the effort to rear their young is considerable. In birds, this often includes building nests, incubating eggs, feeding the chicks, and protecting them from predators. Perhaps for this reason, about 1% of birds (around 100 species) save themselves the effort and cheat instead. They are obligate brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species and leaving the hosts or foster parents to rear the foreign chicks for them. Some birds also cheat on individuals of the same species (intraspecific brood parasitism). Intraspecific brood parasitism has been reported in around 200 species, but is likely to be higher, as it can often only be detected by genetic analyses.
    Current biology: CB 10/2013; 23(20):R909-13.
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    Current biology: CB 10/2013; 23(20):R907-9.
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    ABSTRACT: Interspecific competitive interactions typically result in niche differentiation to alleviate competition through mechanisms including character displacement. However, competition is not the sole constraint on resource partitioning, and its effects are mediated by factors including the environmental context in which species coexist. Colonial seabirds provide an excellent opportunity to investigate the importance of competition in shaping realized niche widths because their life histories lead to variation in intra- and interspecific competition across the annual cycle. Dense breeding aggregations result in intense competition for prey in surrounding waters, whereas non-breeding dispersal to larger geographical areas produces lower densities of competitors. Bayesian hierarchical models of the isotopic niche, closely aligned to the trophic niche, reveal the degree of segregation between species and functional groups during both time periods. Surprisingly, species explained far more of the variance in the isotopic niche during the non-breeding than the breeding period. Our results underline the key role of non-breeding dynamics in alleviating competition and promoting distinctions between species through the facilitation of resource partitioning. Such situations may be common in a diverse range of communities sustained by ephemeral but abundant food items. This highlights how consideration of the hierarchical grouping of competitive interactions alongside consideration of abiotic constraints across the complete annual cycle allows a full understanding of the role of competition in driving patterns of character displacement.
    Journal of Animal Ecology 10/2013;
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    ABSTRACT: Sperm length is extremely variable across species, but a general explanation for this variation is lacking. However, when the risk of sperm competition is high, sperm length is predicted to be less variable within species, and there is some evidence for this in birds and social insects. Here, we examined intraspecific variation in sperm length, both within and between males, and its potential associations with sperm competition risk and variation in female reproductive tract morphology across dung flies. We used two measures of variation in sperm size, and testis size was employed as our index of sperm competition risk. We found no evidence of associations between sperm length variation and sperm competition or female reproductive tract variation. These results suggest that variation in sperm competition risk may not always be associated with variation in sperm morphology, and the cause(s) of sperm length variation in dung flies remains unclear.
    Journal of Evolutionary Biology 09/2013;
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    ABSTRACT: Camouflage is perhaps the most widespread defence against predators in nature and an active area of interdisciplinary research. Recent work has aimed to understand what camouflage types exist (e.g. background matching, disruptive, and distractive patterns) and their effectiveness. However, work has almost exclusively focused on the efficacy of these strategies in preventing initial detection, despite the fact that predators often encounter the same prey phenotype repeatedly, affording them opportunities to learn to find those prey more effectively. The overall value of a camouflage strategy may, therefore, reflect both its ability to prevent detection by predators and resist predator learning. We conducted four experiments with humans searching for hidden targets of different camouflage types (disruptive, distractive, and background matching of various contrast levels) over a series of touch screen trials. As with previous work, disruptive coloration was the most successful method of concealment overall, especially with relatively high contrast patterns, whereas potentially distractive markings were either neutral or costly. However, high contrast patterns incurred faster decreases in detection times over trials compared to other stimuli. In addition, potentially distractive markings were sometimes learnt more slowly than background matching markings, despite being found more readily overall. Finally, learning effects were highly dependent upon the experimental paradigm, including the number of prey types seen and whether subjects encountered targets simultaneously or sequentially. Our results show that the survival advantage of camouflage strategies reflects both their ability to avoid initial detection (sensory mechanisms) and predator learning (perceptual mechanisms).
    PLoS ONE 09/2013; 8(9):e73733.
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    ABSTRACT: Feeding generalists typically occupy broad ecological niches and so are potentially pre-adapted to a range of novel food objects. In northern Europe, the slug Arion lusitanicus has spread rapidly as an invasive species and a serious horticultural and agricultural pest. We used nutritional geometry to analyze nutrient balancing capabilities and consequences for performance in A. lusitanicus when provided with one of three nutritionally fixed diets or when given dietary choice. The slugs over-ingested high amounts of the most abundant nutrient in order to get more of the limited nutrient. However, they regulated protein intake more tightly than carbohydrate intake resulting in very high food intake when fed a protein-poor diet. Growth and body composition were highly affected by the nutrient balance of their diet. When given the choice to feed from two nutritionally different diets, the slugs selected an intake balance of protein and carbohydrate with sufficient precision to maximize growth. Nutrient utilization efficiency increased with increasing deficiency of the specific nutrient in the diet. Ingested carbohydrate was more efficiently stored as lipids in slugs fed more carbohydrate-poor diets, and ingested nitrogen was more efficiently incorporated into slug bodies in slugs fed more protein-poor diets. Our experiments suggest that the evolved behavioral and physiological regulatory capacities of A. lusitanicus may explain some of the success that this slug experiences as an invasive species. We furthermore propose that invasive species might be more dependent on high protein availability in the environment than non-invasive species.
    Physiology & Behavior. 09/2013; 122:84-92.
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    ABSTRACT: In many cooperatively breeding species, females mate extra-group, the adaptive value of which remains poorly understood. One hypothesis posits that females employ extra-group mating to access mates whose genotypes are more dissimilar to their own than their social mates, so as to increase offspring heterozygosity. We test this hypothesis using life history and genetic data from 36 cooperatively breeding white-browed sparrow weaver (Plocepasser mahali) groups. Contrary to prediction, a dominant female's relatedness to her social mate did not drive extra-group mating decisions and, moreover, extra-group mating females were significantly more related to their extra-group sires than their social mates. Instead, dominant females were substantially more likely to mate extra-group when paired to a dominant male of low heterozygosity, and their extra-group mates (typically dominants themselves) were significantly more heterozygous than the males they cuckolded. The combined effects of mating with extra-group males of closer relatedness, but higher heterozygosity resulted in extra-group-sired offspring that were no more heterozygous than their within-group-sired half-siblings. Our findings are consistent with a role for male-male competition in driving extra-group mating and suggest that the local kin structure typical of cooperative breeders could counter potential benefits to females of mating extra-group by exposing them to a risk of inbreeding.
    Molecular Ecology 09/2013;
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