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This Week in Science: Oct 20, 2017

In a paper in this week's Science, an international research team combines genomics and ecology to better understand the effects of natural selection on evolution. Analyzing data from a long-term study of two populations of great tits in the UK and Netherlands in order to uncover how genetic signatures of selection translate into variation in fitness and phenotypes, they discovered that selection has influenced genes coding for bill length. One of these in particular — the collagen gene COL4A5 — was associated with differences in reproductive success across each of the bird populations. This finding, the authors write, may explain why ongoing selection of longer bills in the UK population correlates with increased fitness. The investigators also found a link between COL4A5 variation and the usage of bird feeders, suggesting that longer bills may have evolved in the United Kingdom as a response to a human behavior.

Also in Science, scientists from the University of Lyon's Institute of Functional Genomics report the discovery of two genes involved in the evolution of a propelling fan found exclusively on the middle leg of water striding insects belonging to the Rhagovelia genus. By combining gene expression with functional and behavioral assays, the researchers discovered two taxon-restricted genes — dubbed geisha and mother-of-geisha — that control fan development. They say geisha originated through a duplication event at the base of the Rhagovelia lineage, and that both duplicates acquired a novel expression in a specific cell population prefiguring fan development. "These gene duplicates played a central role in Rhagovelia's adaptation to a new physical environment, demonstrating that the evolution of taxon-restricted genes can contribute directly to evolutionary novelties that allow access to unexploited ecological niches," the authors state.