Research Highlights

Legs as gills, guts as heart: plumbing the secrets of sea spiders


Sea spiders (image: Tim Dwyer) grow to Frisbee-size in the frigid waters of the Antarctic, using pores on the surface of their long legs to "breathe" in this oxygen-poor environment. But how the sea spiders circulate that oxygen was mysterious, as they lack a strong heart and advanced circulatory system. OBEE Assoc. Prof. Art Woods and colleagues made a splash recently by reporting that the guts of sea spiders (uniquely) double as auxiliary hearts, with the movement of food washing blood throughout their bodies. Read more about the study in Science News, more about sea spiders and polar gigantism here.  For the inside scoop on the joy of science under Antarctic ice, check out this recent interview of Art in Outside Magazine.

A(nother) fungus among us!! DBS researchers redefine lichen symbiosis

For >150 years, lichens have been understood as a symbiosis between a single fungus and one or more photosynthetic partners. New genomic and cellular research from DBS's McCutcheon Lab reveals that many lichens world-wide also contain a second fungal partner, radically altering how scientists think about this ancient and ubiquitous symbiosis. The work, led by UM postdoc Toby Spribille, was featured on the cover of Science and in stories in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and elsewhere.

Figuring out what makes Borrelia tick

The causative agent of Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, is a spirochete (corkscrew-shaped bacterium). To complete its life-cycle, the spirochete must be able to survive and multiply in the very different environments of both an Ixodes tick vector and a primary vertebrate host. A recent review from CMMB's Samuels Lab, featured on the cover of 2016 Cellular Microbiology, summarizes 30 years of investigation into how B. burgdorferi persists in the midgut of ticks while awaiting transmission to a new host. Because ticks only make periodic bloodmeals, their guts are a tough place to live, and the review focuses on the genetic, regulatory, and metabolic mechanisms used by the spirochete to obtain nutrition in this harsh environmentThe cover image (credit: Dan Drecktrah) shows B. burgdorferi stained green and tick midgut cells stained magenta. Read more here: Melissa J. Caimano, Dan Drecktrah, Faith Kung and D. Scott Samuels  (2016) Cellular Microbiology.

"Few to feed, early to fly" a strategy for tropical songirds

Compared to their temperate-nesting relatives, tropical songbirds grow slow and raise few chicks per nest. Why they do this, when high rates of nest predation in the tropics make the odds of successfully fledging even one chick low, has long been a mystery.

tropical songbird New research from Dr. Tom Martin (OBE, Wildlife Biology, and USGS Montana Co-op Wildlife Research Unit), published in Science August 28, finds the answer in life-history theory. Drawing on years of growth and mortality data from multiple field sites and numerous species, Dr. Martin shows tropical parents are laying fewer eggs to allow greater provisioning of each chick to facilitate faster wing growth, which improves their flight ability to escape predators after leaving the nest. In contrast, higher rates of adult mortality in the temperate zone place a lower premium on the quality of any individual chick, so the same resources are better split among more offspring. Read more about this breakthrough in understanding global patterns of bird variation on the Guardian's GrrlScientist blog and at ScienceDaily.

Slouching into symbiosis

PNAScoverMost plants and animals depend on microbial symbionts to perform essential functions, but those intimate partnerships are not necessarily matches made in heaven. New research from the McCutcheon Lab (CMMB and OBE) suggests that the obligate relationship between periodical cicadas and their two bacterial symbionts has become more complex due to non-adaptive gene loss by the microbes rather than only natural selection. 

cicadaAn article co-first-authored by grad students Matt Campbell (OBE) and J.T. Van Leuven (CMMB), plus an overview of the Sackler Symposium on symbiosis co-organized by Dr. McCutcheon, appeared in PNAS in August.  Learn more about cicadas and their remarkable symbionts in this National Geographic piece.


Upstroke, upstroke, and away

JexpBio_CrandellcoverSlow flight is inefficient, but inevitable during take-off and landing. How (and even whether) birds make the most of their wingbeats during this important stage of flight has long been in question.  A new study by OBE grad student Kristin Crandell and advisor Bret Tobalske of the UM Flight Lab used high-tech visualization of air flow around wings to show that some slow-flight upstrokes generate important force. The research article was featured on the cover of the August 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Genomes on the move

Hybrids between species are often unfit, but can nonetheless lead to exchange of genetic material from one species to another. Two new papers from DBS researchers address shed light on why, and with what consequences, genetic material flows across species boundaries.maps of hybrid trout In a recent opinion article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, OBE Associate Professor Winsor Lowe and DBS colleagues argue that elevated dispersal distances in hybrids between native cutthroat trout and introduced rainbow trout account for the rapid spread of damaging rainbow trout genes through Northern Rockies cutthroat. Read more about DBS research into the causes and consequences of trout hybridization in this NPR story

chipmunks on journal coverIn the longer term, however, hybridization may leave little but harmless genomic footprints behind. In the September 2015 cover article of the journal Evolution, OBE Assistant Professor Jeff Good and colleagues showed that some populations of the yellow-pine chipmunk long ago swapped their mitochondrial genomes for those of another species. Intriguingly, this ancient mixing left little or no mark on the rest of the introgresssed chipmunks' genomes, suggesting that new genome-scale approaches may uncover cryptic hybridization in many more species and that evolutionary analyses based only mitochondrial markers may often lead researchers astray.