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Hummingbird Adaptation in the Andes Reveals New Clues to the Biology of Evolution

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STONY BROOK, NY, July 23, 2019 — Creatures that transition from low to high elevations must evolve because of extreme changes in temperature, oxygen and other factors. Genetic changes are necessary for species to evolve and adapt to new environments. However, how can one predict such genetic changes? A study led by Stony Brook University researchers reveals that this may be possible at a molecular level.

In a paper published in in Genome Biology and Evolution, researchers found that multiple hummingbird species – such as this giant hummingbird, Patogona gigas – have adapted to high altitudes in the Andes Mountains through genetic mutations that affect the same biochemical pathways.

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Close-up of the giant hummingbird in the Andes Mountains Credit: Christopher C. Witt

Lead author Marisa Lim, PhD, a graduate of the doctoral program in the Department of Ecology & Evolution, summarizes that the study shows “there is a predictability in the evolutionary machinery, primarily across biological pathways.” The research team discovered this by sequencing thousands of genes of 12 hummingbird species in the Andes.

To complete this sequencing aspect of the research, co-author Liliana M. Dávalos, Professor of Ecology & Evolution and affiliate faculty member of Stony Brook University’s Institute for Advanced Computational Science (IACS), explains Dr. Lim conducted massive parallel computing on each gene to find out if genes had changed with the colonization of hummingbirds at high elevation habitats. The researchers used the high-speed computing capacities available at the IACS to accurately identify the genes and any changes.

They identified pathways, genes and amino acid sites that were shared across high or low elevation humming bird species. This finding may provide a basis for looking at biological pathway changes in other species to determine how they have evolved to geographic and climatic changes.

The research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

About Stony Brook University
Stony Brook University, widely regarded as a SUNY flagship, is going beyond the expectations of what today’s public universities can accomplish. Since its founding in 1957, this young university has grown to become one of only four University Center campuses in the State University of New York (SUNY) system with over 26,000 students, more than 2,700 faculty members and 18 NCAA Division I athletic programs. Our faculty have earned numerous prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation, Abel Prize and the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The University offers students an elite education with an outstanding return on investment: U.S.News & World Report ranks Stony Brook among the top 40 public universities in the nation. Its membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) places Stony Brook among the top 62 research institutions in North America. As part of the management team of Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University joins a prestigious group of universities that have a role in running federal R&D labs. Stony Brook University fuels Long island’s economic growth. Its impact on the Long island economy amounts to $7.38 billion in increased output. Our state, country and world demand ambitious ideas, imaginative solutions and exceptional leadership to forge a better future for all. The students, alumni, researchers and faculty of Stony Brook University are prepared to meet this challenge.

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