Two new papers featuring work from graduate student Elaine Guevara on the evolution of gorilla taste perception, and prenatal androgen exposure in primate mixed-sex litters

September 1, 2016

Congratulations to graduate student Elaine Guevara on her two new publications. Details and abstracts can be found below.

Non-human primates avoid the detrimental effects of prenatal androgen exposure in mixed-sex litters: combined demographic, behavioral, and genetic analyses

Producing single versus multiple births has important life history trade-offs, including the potential benefits and risks of sharing a common in utero environment. Sex hormones can diffuse through amniotic fluid and fetal membranes, and females with male littermates risk exposure to high levels of fetal testosterone, which are shown to have masculinizing effects and negative fitness consequences in many mammals. Whereas most primates give birth to single offspring, several New World monkey and strepsirrhine species regularly give birth to small litters. We examined whether neonatal testosterone exposure might be detrimental to females in mixed-sex litters by compiling data from long-term breeding records for seven primate species (Saguinus oedipus; Varecia variegata, Varecia rubra, Microcebus murinis, Mirza coquereli, Cheirogaleus medius, Galago moholi). Litter sex ratios did not differ from the expected 1:2:1 (MM:MF:FF for twins) and 1:2:2:1 (MMM:MMF:MFF:FFF for triplets). Measures of reproductive success, including female survivorship, offspring-survivorship, and inter-birth interval, did not differ between females born in mixed-sex versus all-female litters, indicating that litter-producing non-human primates, unlike humans and rodents, show no signs of detrimental effects from androgen exposure in mixed sex litters. Although we found no evidence for CYP19A1 gene duplications—a hypothesized mechanism for coping with androgen exposure—aromatase protein evolution shows patterns of convergence among litter-producing taxa. That some primates have effectively found a way to circumvent a major cost of multiple births has implications for understanding variation in litter size and life history strategies across mammals.

Click here to access this paper in the American Journal of Primatology.

Potential arms race in the coevolution of primates and angiosperms: brazzein sweet proteins and gorilla taste receptors

We explored whether variation in the sweet taste receptor protein T1R3 in primates could contribute to differences in sweet taste repertoire among species, potentially reflecting coevolution with local plants. Specifically, we examined which primates are likely to be sweet “tasters” of brazzein, a protein found in the fruit of the African plant Pentadiplandra brazzeana that tastes intensely sweet to humans, but provides little energy. Sweet proteins like brazzein are thought to mimic the taste of sugars to entice seed dispersers. We examined the evolution of T1R3 and assessed whether primates are likely “deceived” by such biochemical mimicry.
Using published and new sequence data for TAS1R3, we characterized 57 primates and other mammals at the two amino acid sites necessary to taste brazzein to determine which species are tasters. We further used dN/dS-based methods to look for statistical evidence of accelerated evolution in this protein across primate lineages.
The taster genotype is shared across most catarrhines, suggesting that most African primates can be “tricked” into eating and dispersing P. brazzeana’s seeds for little caloric gain. Western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla), however, exhibit derived mutations at the two brazzein-critical positions, and although fruit is a substantial portion of the western gorilla diet, they have not been observed to eat P. brazzeana. Our analyses of protein evolution found no signature of positive selection on TAS1R3 along the gorilla lineage.
We propose that the gorilla-specific mutations at the TAS1R3 locus encoding T1R3 could be a counter-adaptation to the false sweet signal of brazzein.