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Bacteria that live in the digestive tracts of animals may influence the adaptive trajectories of their hosts.

A few minutes from the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia sits a small peach orchard that’s home to some unusual experiments. Contrary to first appearances, the subjects of the experiments are not the peach trees themselves, each of which is protected by a two-meter-cubed tent of fine mesh material. Instead, researchers are interested in the hundreds of tiny fruit flies living on the trees and the even tinier bacteria living inside the insects’ guts.

Seth Rudman.
Rudman

The setup was designed with a deceptively simple question in mind: Do the microbes in an animal’s digestive tract help shape their host’s evolution? Washington State University evolutionary biologist Seth Rudman says that it would make sense if they did. “Microbiomes [can have] a huge effect on host fitness, and hence could have a huge effect on adaptive trajectories of populations,” says Rudman, who helped construct part of the site in 2017 while a postdoc in evolutionary ecologist Paul Schmidt’s lab at UPenn. Despite broad scientific interest in the microbiome, few researchers had tackled these kinds of evolutionary questions experimentally.

Rudman, meanwhile, has been carrying out more research in Drosophila and also plans to work with stickleback fish, a species commonly used in adaptive evolution studies, he says. Designing experiments that capture as much of a species’ ecology as possible will be particularly important, he adds, not only for understanding how microbiomes influence host genomes, but for determining the extent to which this influence matters, among all the other forces at play, in driving host evolution in the real world. “I think the jury’s out on that,” he says. “The data will hopefully guide us—and that’s the way science should go.”

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The Scientist

It’s Summer, And That Means The Mysterious Return Of Glacier Ice Worms

Scott Hotaling.
Hotaling

High up on Mount Rainier in Washington, there’s a stunning view of the other white-capped peaks in the Cascade Range. But Scott Hotaling is looking down toward his feet, studying the snow-covered ground.

“It’s happening,” he says, gesturing across Paradise Glacier.

“There are so many,” says Hotaling, a biological sciences researcher at Washington State University. An estimated 5 billion ice worms can live in a single glacier.

For a long time, he says, biologists have written off high-altitude glaciers such as these as basically sterile, lifeless places. Ice worms, however, show that this fragile environment — where the glaciers are vulnerable to climate change and are retreating — is potentially far more complicated.

The National Park Service’s visitors center near Paradise Glacier, for example, has a nice display on alpine wildlife, Hotaling says, “and there is somehow nothing about ice worms. And it is a source of frustration for me.”

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NPR
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SYFY

New insight into photosynthesis could help grow more resilient plants

A research team led by Washington State University has created a computer model to understand how plants store energy in the thylakoid membrane, a key structure to photosynthesis in plant leaves.

The team confirmed the accuracy of the mathematical model with lab experiments. Their work was recently published in the journal Nature Plants. Co-authors on the study include Hans-Henning Kunz, assistant professor of biological sciences at WSU.

Hans Henning-Kunz.
Kunz

Figuring out how plants make adjustments to changes in environmental conditions could improve understanding of how they perform in the field and help develop new plants that can withstand rising temperatures from climate change.

The findings could have broad implications and benefits in years to come, as the model is integrated with others to learn more about how exactly photosynthesis works.

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Morning Ag Clips
WSU Insider

Sick legacy — how DDT exposure from the past can affect many generations to come

New research is providing worrying evidence that your grandparents’ exposure to toxic pollutants like DDT could increase the risk of illnesses for you and all your future offspring.

Michael Skinner.
Skinner

Michael Skinner, a biologist from Washington State University, studies how environmental toxicants, like DDT, affect epigenetic inheritance. That is the science of how changes to the way our DNA gets expressed can be transmitted to future generations.

He’s found the effects of DDT exposure can be passed down four generations in rodents, but said based on other studies with different animals, and with different toxic chemicals, the effects could be expected to last many more generations, and may, in fact, be permanent.

Given the effects he and other scientists have seen, Skinner said our current and ancestral exposures — to DDT and many other toxic synthetic chemicals we’ve been exposed to over the years — could be behind the rise in chronic diseases around the world today.

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CBC

Songbird plumage and testosterone levels are altered by wildfire

Fire can put a tropical songbird’s sex life on ice. Following habitat-destroying wildfires in Australia, researchers found that many male red-backed fairywrens failed to molt into their red-and-black ornamental plumage, making them less attractive to potential mates. They also had lowered circulating testosterone, which has been associated with their showy feathers.

“Really, it ended up all coming down to testosterone. There’s no evidence that the birds were actually stressed. Wildfire was just interfering with their normal, temporal pattern of elevating testosterone and then producing that colorful plumage,”Jordan Boersma, study lead author and doctoral student in biology at Washington State University.

Jordan Boersma.
Boersma

In an earlier study, Boersma and his colleagues showed that testosterone helps the fairywren process pigments in their diet called carotenoids to create their colorful feathers. This study adds further evidence of that connection as well as the birds’ response to wildfire.

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