Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

By Ann Gibbons

Humans did not evolve alone. Tens of trillions of microbes have followed us on our journey from prehistoric ape, evolving with us along the way, according to a new study. But the work also finds that we’ve lost some of the ancient microbes that still inhabit our great ape cousins, which could explain some human diseases and even obesity and mental disorders.

Researchers have known for some time that humans and the other great apes harbor many types of bacteria, especially in their guts, a collection known as the microbiome. But where did these microbes come from: our ancient ancestors, or our environment? A study of fecal bacteria across all mammals suggested that the microbes are more likely to be inherited than acquired from the environment. But other studies have found that diet plays a major role in shaping the bacteria in our guts.

To solve the mystery, Andrew Moeller turned to wild apes. As part of his doctoral dissertation, the evolutionary biologist, now a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, studied gut bacteria isolated from fecal samples from 47 chimpanzees from Tanzania, 24 bonobos from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 24 gorillas from Cameroon, and 16 humans from Connecticut. In these samples, he and colleagues at the University of Texas (UT), Austin, compared the DNA sequences of a single rapidly evolving gene that is common in the gut bacteria in apes, including humans. They then sorted the different DNA gene sequences into family trees.

It turns out that most of our gut microbes have been evolving with us for a long time. Moeller found that two of three major families of gut bacteria in apes and humans trace their origins to a common ancestor more than 15 million years ago, not primarily to bugs picked up from their environment. But as the different species of apes diverged from this ancestor, their gut bacteria also split into new strains, and coevolved in parallel (a process known as cospeciation) to adapt to differences in the diets, habitats, and diseases in the gastrointestinal tracts of their hosts, the team reports today in Science. Today, these microbes are finely adapted to help train our immune systems, guide the development of our intestines, and even modulate our moods and behaviors.

“It’s surprising that our gut microbes, which we could get from many sources in the environment, have actually been coevolving inside us for such a long time,” says project leader Howard Ochman, an evolutionary biologist at UT Austin.

After the ape species diverged, some also lost distinct strains of bacteria that persisted in other primates, likely another sign of adaptation in the host, the team found.

In a final experiment, the researchers probed deeper into the human microbiome. They compared the same DNA sequence they had analyzed in all of the apes, but this time between the people from Connecticut and people from Malawi. They found that the bacterial strains from these Africans diverged from those of the Americans about 1.7 million years ago, which corresponds with the earliest exodus of human ancestors out of Africa. This suggests that gut bacteria can be used to trace early human and animal migrations, Moeller says. Interestingly, the Americans lacked some of the strains of bacteria found in Malawians—and in gorillas and chimps—which fits with the general reduction in gut microbiome diversity that has been observed in people in industrialized societies, perhaps because of changes in diet and the use of antibiotics.

The work “represents a significant step in understanding human microbiota coevolutionary history,” says Justin Sonnenburg of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved with the research. “It elegantly shows that gut microbes are passed vertically, between generations over millions of years.” Microbiologist Martin Blaser of New York University in New York City agrees: “The path of transmission was from mom apes to baby apes for hundreds of thousands of generations at least.”

But the extinction of some strains of bacteria that persist in other apes but not humans raises a red flag for our health. “What happens if a human mom takes antibiotic when she’s pregnant? What happens if she takes it at the moment of delivery?” Blaser asks.

“We are coming to understand how fundamental our gut microbes are for health,” Sonnenburg says. “These findings have huge implications for how we should pursue understanding what a truly healthy microbiome looks like.”

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/microbes-our-guts-have-been-us-millions-years

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

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by Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News, Johannesburg

Scientists have discovered a new human-like species in a burial chamber deep in a cave system in South Africa. The discovery of 15 partial skeletons is the largest single discovery of its type in Africa.

The researchers claim that the discovery will change ideas about our human ancestors.

The studies which have been published in the journal Elife also indicate that these individuals were capable of ritualistic behaviour.

The species, which has been named naledi, has been classified in the grouping, or genus, Homo, to which modern humans belong.

The researchers who made the find have not been able to find out how long ago these creatures lived – but the scientist who led the team, Prof Lee Berger, told BBC News that he believed they could be among the first of our kind (genus Homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago.

Like all those working in the field, he is at pains to avoid the term “missing link”. Prof Berger says naledi could be thought of as a “bridge” between more primitive bipedal primates and humans.

“We’d gone in with the idea of recovering one fossil. That turned into multiple fossils. That turned into the discovery of multiple skeletons and multiple individuals.

“And so by the end of that remarkable 21-day experience, we had discovered the largest assemblage of fossil human relatives ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa. That was an extraordinary experience.”

Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum said naledi was “a very important discovery”.

“What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of human-like creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa. Only one line eventually survived to give rise to us,” he told BBC News.

I went to see the bones which are kept in a secure room at Witwatersrand University. The door to the room looks like one that would seal a bank vault. As Prof Berger turned the large lever on the door, he told me that our knowledge of very early humans is based on partial skeletons and the occasional skull.

he haul of 15 partial skeletons includes both males and females of varying ages – from infants to elderly. The discovery is unprecedented in Africa and will shed more light on how the first humans evolved.

“We are going to know everything about this species,” Prof Berger told me as we walked over to the remains of H. naledi.

“We are going to know when its children were weaned, when they were born, how they developed, the speed at which they developed, the difference between males and females at every developmental stage from infancy, to childhood to teens to how they aged and how they died.”

I was astonished to see how well preserved the bones were. The skull, teeth and feet looked as if they belonged to a human child – even though the skeleton was that of an elderly female.
Its hand looked human-like too, up to its fingers which curl around a bit like those of an ape.

Homo naledi is unlike any primitive human found in Africa. It has a tiny brain – about the size of a gorilla’s and a primitive pelvis and shoulders. But it is put into the same genus as humans because of the more progressive shape of its skull, relatively small teeth, characteristic long legs and modern-looking feet.

“I saw something I thought I would never see in my career,” Prof Berger told me.

“It was a moment that 25 years as a paleoanthropologist had not prepared me for.”

One of the most intriguing questions raised by the find is how the remains got there.

I visited the site of the find, the Rising Star cave, an hour’s drive from the university in an area known as the Cradle of Humankind. The cave leads to a narrow underground tunnel through which some of Prof Berger’s team crawled in an expedition funded by the National Geographic Society.

Small women were chosen because the tunnel was so narrow. They crawled through darkness lit only by their head torches on a precarious 20 minute-long journey to find a chamber containing hundreds of bones.

Among them was Marina Elliott. She showed me the narrow entrance to the cave and then described how she felt when she first saw the chamber.

“The first time I went to the excavation site I likened it to the feeling that Howard Carter must have had when he opened Tutankhamen’s tomb – that you are in a very confined space and then it opens up and all of a sudden all you can see are all these wonderful things – it was incredible,” she said.

Ms Elliott and her colleagues believe that they have found a burial chamber. The Homo naledi people appear to have carried individuals deep into the cave system and deposited them in the chamber – possibly over generations.

If that is correct, it suggests naledi was capable of ritual behaviour and possibly symbolic thought – something that until now had only been associated with much later humans within the last 200,000 years.

Prof Berger said: “We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human. Have we been wrong all along about this kind of behaviour that we thought was unique to modern humans?

“Did we inherit that behaviour from deep time and is it something that (the earliest humans) have always been able to do?”

Prof Berger believes that the discovery of a creature that has such a mix of modern and primitive features should make scientists rethink the definition of what it is to be human – so much so that he himself is reluctant to describe naledi as human.

Other researchers working in the field, such as Prof Stringer, believe that naledi should be described as a primitive human. But he agrees that current theories need to be re-evaluated and that we have only just scratched the surface of the rich and complex story of human evolution.

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34192447