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MSU bioinformatics researcher's avian natural selection study published in 'Science'

Friday, November 11, 2016
By: Vanessa Beeson

The unexpected findings of a two-nation research team including a Mississippi State scientist are featured in a recent edition of a leading academic journal.

Photo By: Beth Wynn

Genetic adaptations of hummingbirds to life at high altitudes where oxygen is less available are the focus of the recent report in Science authored by Federico G. Hoffmann, in collaboration with academic partners in the U.S. and Denmark.

An assistant professor since 2011 in the university's Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Plant Pathology, Hoffman said the team's findings could have further implications in the field of evolutionary biology.

"This work helps us to better understand that there are multiple ways in which evolution solves problems," the specialist in bioinformatics said.

The research project was funded by grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Danish Council for Independent Research. The article may be read at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/354/6310/336.

Hoffman's colleagues included Chandrasekhar Natarajan and Jay F. Storz from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Roy E. Weber and Angela Fago from Aarhus University in Denmark, and Christopher C. Witt from the University of New Mexico.

Science, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is devoted to the weekly presentation of research papers "that are most influential in their fields or across fields, and that will significantly advance scientific understanding." For more, visit www.sciencemag.org/about.

Hoffman explained that the team successfully gained insight into the evolutionary process of natural selection by studying hummingbirds and several other avian species that live at both low and high altitudes. Weighing less than a nickel but having the highest metabolic rate of any vertebrate, hummingbirds have adapted over time to surviving in mountainous regions.

A Texas Tech University doctoral graduate, he said the research "shows that we can predict how species with similar starting points are going to adapt to each environment. If the starting points are dissimilar, the process of natural selection becomes much more difficult to predict."

In their study featured in the journal's Oct. 21 issue, Hoffman describes how team members focused on hemoglobin in 28 pairs of high- and low-altitude lineages of bird species to determine how different species evolve. Hemoglobin is a red blood cell protein that carries oxygen throughout a body.

While hemoglobin from species adapted for life at high altitudes had a higher affinity for oxygen, researchers found that genetic paths leading to those hemoglobin adaptations varied. Using computational methods, they were able to travel back in time 100 million years by reconstructing protein present in the birds' ancestors.

Jeffrey F.D. Dean, professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, said the study is significant and a "powerful piece of work that contributes to our fundamental understanding of evolutionary biology."

"By focusing on a key component in adaptation—hemoglobin and its role as an oxygen carrier—Dr. Hoffmann and his colleagues were able to infer the ancestral form of this protein despite the random nature of the evolutionary process," Dean said.

Hoffmann also is part of the research team at the MSU-based Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. He is an alumnus of the Universidad de la RepĆ¹blica Uruguay, with bachelor's and master's degrees completed, respectively, in biology and zoology.

His post-doctoral fellowships in molecular evolution and bioinformatics were completed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Instituto Carlos Chagas, Brazil's equivalent to the National Institutes of Health in the U.S.

For more on MSU's biochemistry, molecular biology, entomology and plant pathology department, visit www.biochemistry.msstate.edu; on MAFES, www.mafes.msstate.edu.


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