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New and Exciting in PLoS this week

So, let’s see what’s new in PLoS Genetics, PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Pathogens and PLoS ONE this week. As always, you should rate the articles, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about the papers. You can now also easily place articles on various social services (CiteULike, Mendeley, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook and Digg) with just one click. Here are my own picks for the week – you go and look for your own favourites:

Explaining Dog Wolf Differences in Utilizing Human Pointing Gestures: Selection for Synergistic Shifts in the Development of Some Social Skills:

The comparison of human related communication skills of socialized canids may help to understand the evolution and the epigenesis of gesture comprehension in humans. To reconcile previously contradicting views on the origin of dogs’ outstanding performance in utilizing human gestures, we suggest that dog-wolf differences should be studied in a more complex way. We present data both on the performance and the behaviour of dogs and wolves of different ages in a two-way object choice test. Characteristic behavioural differences showed that for wolves it took longer to establish eye contact with the pointing experimenter, they struggled more with the handler, and pups also bit her more before focusing on the human’s signal. The performance of similarly hand-reared 8-week-old dogs and wolves did not differ in utilizing the simpler proximal momentary pointing. However, when tested with the distal momentary pointing, 4-month-old pet dogs outperformed the same aged hand reared wolves. Thus early and intensive socialisation does not diminish differences between young dogs and wolves in behaviour and performance. Socialised adult wolves performed similarly well as dogs in this task without pretraining. The success of adult wolves was accompanied with increased willingness to cooperate. Thus, we provide evidence for the first time that socialised adult wolves are as successful in relying on distal momentary pointing as adult pet dogs. However, the delayed emergence of utilising human distal momentary pointing in wolves shows that these wild canines react to a lesser degree to intensive socialisation in contrast to dogs, which are able to control agonistic behaviours and inhibition of actions in a food related task early in development. We suggest a “synergistic” hypothesis, claiming that positive feedback processes (both evolutionary and epigenetic) have increased the readiness of dogs to attend to humans, providing the basis for dog-human communication.

The Origins of Lactase Persistence in Europe:

Most adults worldwide do not produce the enzyme lactase and so are unable to digest the milk sugar lactose. However, most people in Europe and many from other populations continue to produce lactase throughout their life (lactase persistence). In Europe, a single genetic variant, −13,910*T, is strongly associated with lactase persistence and appears to have been favoured by natural selection in the last 10,000 years. Since adult consumption of fresh milk was only possible after the domestication of animals, it is likely that lactase persistence coevolved with the cultural practice of dairying, although it is not known when lactase persistence first arose in Europe or what factors drove its rapid spread. To address these questions, we have developed a simulation model of the spread of lactase persistence, dairying, and farmers in Europe, and have integrated genetic and archaeological data using newly developed statistical approaches. We infer that lactase persistence/dairying coevolution began around 7,500 years ago between the central Balkans and central Europe, probably among people of the Linearbandkeramik culture. We also find that lactase persistence was not more favoured in northern latitudes through an increased requirement for dietary vitamin D. Our results illustrate the possibility of integrating genetic and archaeological data to address important questions on human evolution.