Smallpox holds a unique position in the history of medicine. It was the first disease for which a vaccine was developed and remains the only human disease eradicated by vaccination. Although there have been claims of smallpox in Egypt, India, and China dating back millennia [1–4], the timescale of emergence of the causative agent, variola virus (VARV), and how it evolved in the context of increasingly widespread immunization, have proven controversial [4–9]. In particular, some molecular-clock-based studies have suggested that key events in VARV evolution only occurred during the last two centuries [4–6] and hence in apparent conflict with anecdotal historical reports, although it is difficult to distinguish smallpox from other pustular rashes by description alone. To address these issues, we captured, sequenced, and reconstructed a draft genome of an ancient strain of VARV, sampled from a Lithuanian child mummy dating between 1643 and 1665 and close to the time of several documented European epidemics [1, 2, 10]. When compared to vaccinia virus, this archival strain contained the same pattern of gene degradation as 20th century VARVs, indicating that such loss of gene function had occurred before ca. 1650. Strikingly, the mummy sequence fell basal to all currently sequenced strains of VARV on phylogenetic trees. Molecular-clock analyses revealed a strong clock-like structure and that the timescale of smallpox evolution is more recent than often supposed, with the diversification of major viral lineages only occurring within the 18th and 19th centuries, concomitant with the development of modern vaccination.

Chloridoideae (chloridoid grasses) are a subfamily of ca. 1700 species with high diversity in arid habitats. Until now, their evolutionary relationships have primarily been studied with DNA sequences from the chloroplast, a maternally inherited organelle. Next-generation sequencing is able to efficiently recover large numbers of nuclear loci that can then be used to estimate the species phylogeny based upon bi-parentally inherited data. We sought to test our chloroplast-based hypotheses of relationships among chloridoid species with 122 nuclear loci generated through targeted-enrichment next-generation sequencing, sometimes referred to as hyb-seq. We targeted putative single-copy housekeeping genes, as well as genes that have been implicated in traits characteristic of, or particularly labile in, chloridoids: e.g., drought and salt tolerance. We recovered ca. 70% of the targeted loci (122 of 177 loci) in all 47 species sequenced using hyb-seq. We then analyzed the nuclear loci with Bayesian and coalescent methods and the resulting phylogeny resolves relationships between the four chloridoid tribes. Several novel findings with this data were: the sister lineage to Chloridoideae is unresolved; Centropodia + Ellisochloa are excluded from Chloridoideae in phylogenetic estimates using a coalescent model; Sporobolus subtilis is more closely related to Eragrostis than to other species of Sporobolus; and Tragus is more closely related to Chloris and relatives than to a lineage of mainly New World species. Relationships in Cynodonteae in the nuclear phylogeny are quite different from chloroplast estimates, but were not robust to changes in the method of phylogenetic analysis. We tested the data signal with several partition schemes, a concatenation analysis, and tests of alternative hypotheses to assess our confidence in this new, nuclear estimate of evolutionary relationships. Our work provides markers and a framework for additional phylogenetic studies that sample more densely within chloridoid tribes. These results represent progress towards a robust classification of this important subfamily of grasses, as well as proof-of-concept for hyb-seq next-generation sequencing as a method to generate sequences for phylogenetic analyses in grasses and other plant families.

Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) is a modified form of photosynthesis that has arisen independently at least 35 times in flowering plants. The occurrence of CAM is often correlated with shifts to arid, semiarid, or epiphytic habits, as well as transitions in leaf morphology (e.g. increased leaf thickness) and anatomy (e.g. increased cell size and packing). We assess shifts between C3 and CAM photosynthesis in the subfamily Agavoideae (Asparagaceae) through phylogenetic analysis of targeted loci captured from the nuclear and chloroplast genomes of over 60 species. Carbon isotope data was used as a proxy for mode of photosynthesis in extant species and ancestral states were estimated on the phylogeny. Ancestral character state mapping suggests three independent origins of CAM in the Agavoideae. CAM species differ from C3 species in climate space and are found to have thicker leaves with densely packed cells. C3 ancestors of CAM species show a predisposition toward CAM-like morphology. Leaf characteristics in the ancestral C3 species may have enabled the repeated evolution of CAM in the Agavoideae subfamily. Anatomical changes, including a tendency toward 3D venation, may have initially arisen in C3 ancestors in response to aridity as a way to increase leaf succulence for water storage.

The three surviving ‘brush-tailed’ bettong species—Bettongia gaimardi (Tasmania), B. tropica (Queensland) and B. penicillata (Western Australia), are all classified as threatened or endangered. These macropodids are prolific diggers and are recognised as important ‘ecosystem engineers’ that improve soil quality and increase seed germination success. However, a combination of introduced predators, habitat loss and disease has seen populations become increasingly fragmented and census numbers decline. Robust phylogenies are vital to conservation management, but the extent of extirpation and fragmentation in brush-tailed bettongs is such that a phylogeny based upon modern samples alone may provide a misleading picture of former connectivity, genetic diversity and species boundaries. Using ancient DNA isolated from fossil bones and museum skins, we genotyped two mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genes: cytochrome b (266 bp) and control region (356 bp). These ancient DNA data were combined with a pre-existing modern DNA data set on the historically broadly distributed brush-tailed bettongs (~300 samples total), to investigate their phylogenetic relationships. Molecular dating estimates the most recent common ancestor of these bettongs occurred c. 2.5 Ma (million years ago), which suggests that increasing aridity likely shaped their modern-day distribution. Analyses of the concatenated mtDNA sequences of all brush-tailed bettongs generated five distinct and well-supported clades including: a highly divergent Nullarbor form (Clade I), B. tropica (Clade II), B. penicillata (Clades III and V), and B. gaimardi (Clade IV). The generated phylogeny does not reflect current taxonomy and the question remains outstanding of whether the brush-tailed bettongs consisted of several species, or a single widespread species. The use of nuclear DNA markers (single nucleotide polymorphisms and/or short tandem repeats) will be needed to better inform decisions about historical connectivity and the appropriateness of ongoing conservation measures such as translocations and captive breeding.


Host–pathogen interactions may result in either directional selection or in pressure for the maintenance of polymorphism at the molecular level. Hence signatures of both positive and balancing selection are expected in immune genes. Because both overall selective pressure and specific targets may differ between species, large-scale population genomic studies are useful in detecting functionally important immune genes and comparing selective landscapes between taxa. Such studies are of particular interest in amphibians, a group threatened worldwide by emerging infectious diseases. Here, we present an analysis of polymorphism and divergence of 634 immune genes in two lineages of Lissotriton newts: L. montandoni and L. vulgaris graecus. Variation in newt immune genes has been shaped predominantly by widespread purifying selection and strong evolutionary constraint, implying long-term importance of these genes for functioning of the immune system. The two evolutionary lineages differ in the overall strength of purifying selection which can partially be explained by demographic history but may also signal differences in long-term pathogen pressure. The prevalent constraint notwithstanding, 23 putative targets of positive selection and 11 putative targets of balancing selection were identified. The latter were detected by composite tests involving the demographic model and further validated in independent population samples. Putative targets of balancing selection encode proteins which may interact closely with pathogens but include also regulators of immune response. The identified candidates will be useful for testing whether genes affected by balancing selection are more prone to interspecific introgression than other genes in the genome.

Herbaria are unparalleled collections of biodiversity information representing the world’s flora. However, this treasure has remained largely inaccessible to genetic studies, frequently limited by the low yields of poor-quality DNA. Next-generation sequencing (NGS) has transformed every field of biological research. The different strategies for accessing genetic data using NGS are changing the direction of biodiversity research—we are no longer constrained by a relatively small number of markers for non-model organisms, by time and cost limited sample sizes, or by incomplete datasets due to recalcitrant DNA extractions or PCR amplification failure. Here we show that targeted enrichment through hybrid capture can be used to generate hundreds of kilobases of nuclear sequence data of the Neotropical genus Inga, from herbarium specimens as old as 180 years and using as little as 16 ng of degraded DNA.

Phylogenetic analysis of Plasmodium parasites has indicated that their modern-day distribution is a result of a series of human-mediated dispersals involving transport between Africa, Europe, America, and Asia. A major outstanding question is the phylogenetic affinity of the malaria causing parasites Plasmodium vivax and falciparum in historic southern Europe—where it was endemic until the mid-20th century, after which it was eradicated across the region. Resolving the identity of these parasites will be critical for answering several hypotheses on the malaria dispersal. Recently, a set of slides with blood stains of malaria-affected people from the Ebro Delta (Spain), dated between 1942 and 1944, have been found in a local medical collection. We extracted DNA from three slides, two of them stained with Giemsa (on which Plasmodium parasites could still be seen under the microscope) and another one consisting of dried blood spots. We generated the data using Illumina sequencing after using several strategies aimed at increasing the Plasmodium DNA yield: depletion of the human genomic (g)DNA content through hybridization with human gDNA baits, and capture-enrichment using gDNA derived from P. falciparum. Plasmodium mitochondrial genome sequences were subsequently reconstructed from the resulting data. Phylogenetic analysis of the eradicated European P. vivax mtDNA genome indicates that the European isolate is closely related to the most common present-day American haplotype and likely entered the American continent post-Columbian contact. Furthermore, the European P. falciparum mtDNA indicates a link with current Indian strains that is in agreement with historical accounts.

Genomic studies are revealing that divergence and speciation are marked by gene flow, but it is not clear whether gene flow has played a prominent role during the generation of biodiversity in species-rich regions of the world where vicariance is assumed to be the principal mode by which new species form. We revisit a well-studied organismal system in the Mexican Highlands, Aphelocoma jays, to test for gene flow among Mexican sierras. Prior results from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) largely conformed to the standard model of allopatric divergence, although there was also evidence for more obscure histories of gene flow in a small sample of nuclear markers. We tested for these ‘hidden histories’ using genomic markers known as ultraconserved elements (UCEs) in concert with phylogenies, clustering algorithms and newer introgression tests specifically designed to detect ancient gene flow (e.g. ABBA/BABA tests). Results based on 4303 UCE loci and 2500 informative SNPs are consistent with varying degrees of gene flow among highland areas. In some cases, gene flow has been extensive and recent (although perhaps not ongoing today), whereas in other cases there is only a trace signature of ancient gene flow among species that diverged as long as 5 million years ago. These results show how a species complex thought to be a model for vicariance can reveal a more reticulate history when a broader portion of the genome is queried. As more organisms are studied with genomic data, we predict that speciation-with-bouts-of-gene-flow will turn out to be a common mode of speciation.