Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Special features

Every year Proceedings B publishes a special feature containing a series of articles on a timely and important topic from anywhere across the biological sciences. All content from our special features is FREE to access.

2022: Despite COVID: showcasing new research in evolutionary biology from academic caregivers in the middle of a pandemic

Guest Editors: Loeske E.B. Kruuk, Sarah F. Brosnan and Maurine Neiman

The lockdowns of COVID-19 were especially hard on academic caregivers, who had to juggle working from home along with children or other caretaking responsibilities. Caretaking all too often falls on women, translating into disproportionate consequences for a group that is already underrepresented and marginalized in academia. We here push back against these forces by providing academic caretakers who were impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns an opportunity to showcase high-quality evolutionary biology research. We focus primarily but not exclusively on women/womxn and early-career researchers as these are the groups that stand to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19-related disruptions. We are delighted to present a fascinating and diverse body of research led by these caretakers, ranging from the evolution of the host protein bound by SARS-family viruses in bats and the cascading consequences of inherited stress responses in wild lupins to evidence for over-representation of females as study subjects in life history-focused research and the discovery of rapid plastic responses in birds to the pandemic world.

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2022: Wild quantitative genomics: the genomic basis of fitness variation in natural populations

Guest Editors: Susan Johnston, Nancy Chen and Emily Josephs

Quantitative genetic studies in wild populations have addressed important questions in ecology and evolution, from sexual selection, behaviour and life-history variation to responses to climate change, immune variation and aging. Historically, the field has been limited to populations with known pedigrees and has often failed to identify the genetic architecture and evolutionary mechanisms driving trait variation. However, the recent development of affordable genomic technologies provides an unprecedented opportunity to apply quantitative genetic approaches in a wider range of taxa. This developing field of “Wild Quantitative Genomics” allows detailed dissection of the genomic architecture of polygenic variation, inbreeding depression, indirect genetic effects, gene by environment (GxE) interactions, multivariate selection, and predictions of evolutionary responses and constraints. This Special Feature aims to highlight this cutting-edge research in animals, plants and microbes and provide a foundation for future questions in the field.

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2022: Stability and manoeuvrability in animal movement: lessons from biology, modelling, and robotics

Guest Editors: Andrew A. Biewener, Richard J. Bomphrey, Monica A. Daley and Auke J. Ijspeert

Locomotion underpins a limitless array of animal behaviours and can be a rich source of inspiration for the design of modern machines. Movement requires mechanical interaction with the physical environment and a sensory capacity to monitor and control musculoskeletal systems that may be complex with many degrees of freedom. Recent advances in modelling, robotics and in vivo experimental methods have proven to be powerful in broadening our understanding of how animals run, swim and fly in a controlled manner. Our understanding of how terrestrial, aquatic, and aerial animals achieve these tasks has historically come from an engineering perspective, but this is a two-way street. Modern robotics are increasingly founded on abstractions from natural models, embodying fundamental principles of their performance, robustness, or efficiency. It is, therefore, an exciting and important time to draw together the work of leading scientists examining movement across land, in water, and through the air. Most achievements have necessitated close partnerships bestriding scientific disciplines. In this Special Feature, we present a snapshot of such efforts with the aim of highlighting commonalities of approach taken by both the scientists and their subjects. In doing so, we hope to reveal deeper insight into animal locomotion as well as inspiring interdisciplinary discussion, innovation, and collaboration.

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2021: Evolution in changing seas

Guest Editors: Katie Lotterhos, Molly Albecker and Geoffrey Trussell

Marine systems provide numerous ecosystem services that are vital to planetary health and human well-being, but these fragile ecosystems are threatened by rapid and multi-faceted environmental change. Over the past two decades there has been considerable interest in developing a better understanding of the capacity of individual organisms to cope with environmental change. The field, however, has yet to develop robust predictions of how marine species and ecosystems will respond, persist, or recover under these threats. A major barrier to making robust predictions is partly driven by a poor understanding of how evolutionary processes have shaped adaptation of species to their current environments, and how such adaptation may shape the capacity of future generations to respond. This issue is further compounded because of the logistical challenges associated with conducting evolutionary research for long-lived organisms that have pelagic larvae. This Special Feature covers the current state of affairs regarding evolutionary processes in the sea, with the aim to identify knowledge gaps and propose practical experimental designs for knowledge advancement. Papers in this Special Feature address knowledge gaps with regard to: the evolution of thermal tolerance and plasticity in variable environments; trade-offs within the life-cycles and across the seascape; and how gene flow, selection, and drift interact to determine patterns of adaptive variation across the seascape. By understanding how evolutionary processes play out in marine systems, we may be able to better predict the outcomes of rapid environmental change in the sea as well as on land.

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2020: Application of ecological and evolutionary theory to microbiome community dynamics across systems

Guest Editors: James McDonald, Britt Koskella and Julian Marchesi

A fundamental aim of microbiome research is to understand the factors that influence the assembly and stability of host-associated microbiomes, and their impact on host phenotype, ecology and evolution. However, ecological and evolutionary theories applied to predict microbiome community dynamics are largely based on macroorganisms and lack microbiome-centric hypotheses that account for unique features of the microbiome. This special feature sets out to drive advancements in the application of eco-evolutionary theory to microbiome community dynamics through the development of microbiome-specific theoretical and conceptual frameworks across plant, human and non-human animal systems. The feature comprises research and review articles that address; (i) the effects of the microbiome on host phenotype, ecology and evolution; (ii) the application and development of ecological and evolutionary theories to investigate microbiome assembly, diversity and stability across broad taxonomic scales; and (iii) general principles that underlie microbiome diversity and dynamics. This cross-disciplinary synthesis of theoretical, conceptual, methodological, and analytical approaches to characterising host microbiome ecology and evolution across systems addresses key research gaps in the field of microbiome research and highlights future research priorities.

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2019: Natural and synthetic gene drives

Guest Editors: Nina Wedell, Anna Lindholm and Tom Price

Gene drive is a naturally occurring phenomenon in which selfish genetic elements manipulate gametogenesis and reproduction to increase their own transmission to the next generation. Currently there is great excitement about the potential of harnessing such systems to control major pest and vector populations. If synthetic gene drive systems can be constructed and applied to key species, they may be able to rapidly spread, either modifying or eliminating the targeted populations. This approach has been lauded as a revolutionary and efficient mechanism to control insect-borne diseases and crop pests. Moreover, recent laboratory successes have demonstrated the power of gene editing to create synthetic gene drive systems. Driving endosymbionts have already been deployed to combat the transmission of dengue and zika virus in mosquitoes. However, there are a variety of barriers to successfully implementing gene drive techniques in wild populations. There is a risk that targeted organisms will rapidly evolve an ability to suppress the synthetic drive system, rendering it ineffective. There are also potential risks of synthetic gene drivers invading non-target species. There is also a risk of insufficient public support. This Special Feature covers the current state of affairs regarding both natural and synthetic gene drive systems with the aim to identify knowledge gaps. By understanding how natural drive systems spread through populations we may be able predict the outcomes of synthetic drive release.

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2018: The Evolution of City Life

Guest Editors: James S. Santangelo, L. Ruth Rivkin and Marc T. J. Johnson

Cities are the fastest growing ecosystem on Earth, with urbanization driving both local and global changes in many environmental factors. Despite a growing knowledge of how urbanization affects the ecology and functioning of ecosystems, we know very little about whether urban environments affect the evolution of species with which we share our cities. For example, does urbanization alter natural selection, the dispersal of individuals and their genes, or the incidence of population bottlenecks and the corresponding loss of genetic diversity? Can populations adapt to the unique environmental challenges posed by cities? Why do some species evolve to depend on humans, whereas others are merely tolerant of our presence, while yet others suffer local extinction in the face of urban development? This Special Feature in Proceedings of the Royal Society B answers these questions through the publication of 15 original theoretical and empirical studies by leading evolutionary biologists. These scientists use cities as replicated “experiments” to understand how humans and the cities we build affect evolution in a diversity of species, including plants, poisonous spiders, lizards, rats, and owls, to name a few. This unprecedented collection of studies on urban evolution clearly shows that cities frequently alter natural selection, gene flow and genetic drift, and drive the evolution of novel adaptations in species. Finally, this Special Feature provides a window into the origin of human commensals, including global pests, a process that is ongoing in cities throughout the world.

For more information on this Special Feature plus FREE access to all of the articles click here and see our blog.

2017: Humans as a model for understanding biological fundamentals

Guest Editors: Sarah Brosnan and Erik Postma

Although some scientific disciplines aim at gaining a better understanding of humans per se, most biologists ultimately aim to understand life in general. This raises the question of whether and when humans are acceptable, or even desirable, models of biological fundamentals. Are humans “too unique” to be informative with respect to biological fundamentals? Or are there areas where we share key components with other species, or for which our very uniqueness serves to allow novel explorations? This Special Feature provides a platform to a multidisciplinary group of authors to tackle this question, with the ultimate aim of a more careful delineation of both the similarities and the differences between humans and other species, and a truly integrated biology that is relevant to all, rather than most, species.

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2017: Ant interactions with their biotic environments

Guest Editors: Guillaume Chomicki and Susanne S. Renner

This Special Feature results from the symposium ‘Ants 2016: ant interactions with their biotic environments’ held in Munich in May 2016 and deals with the interactions between ants and other insects, plants, microbes and fungi, studied at micro- and macroevolutionary levels with a wide range of approaches, from field ecology to next-generation sequencing, chemical ecology and molecular genetics.

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2016: The value of biodiversity in the Anthropocene

Guest Editors: Professor Nathalie Seddon and Dr Rachel Cavanagh

Meeting the ever-increasing needs of the Earth’s human population while maintaining biological diversity is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Despite bold international commitments, biodiversity continues to decline. One potential solution rapidly gaining momentum—as well as opposition—is to incorporate the economic value of biodiversity into mainstream decision-making. Given the need for coherence in tackling the biodiversity crisis, this Special Feature synthesizes recent research advances across natural sciences to explore this controversial topic in relation to economics and policy. Key findings are captured within an interdisciplinary framework that recognizes the foundational role of biodiversity in sustaining the value of ecosystems to humanity.

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2015: Evolution and genetics in medicine

Guest Editors: Professor Sir Roy Anderson and Professor Brian Spratt

Evolutionary biology and genetics have played an increasingly important role in medicine over the last 100 or so years. In this specially commissioned series of articles, the past, present, and future uses of evolutionary biology and genetics in medicine is examined across a wide range of areas. Contributions in this issue provide an exciting reflection on current genetic and evolutionary research which is advancing our understanding of the causes and treatment of disease and infection.

This special feature forms part of our celebrations of the 350th anniversary of publishing and all articles are open access and available here.

2014: Evolutionary ecology of specialisation: insights from phylogenetic analysis

Guest Editor: Jana C. Vamosi, W. Scott Armbruster, and Susanne S. Renner

Which conditions favour specialization and how does specialization affect lineage diversification? This special issue brings together studies that use phylogenetic approaches to answer these questions. The studies use an array of techniques and a broad range of biological systems (including plants, butterflies, fish, amphibians, and hummingbirds). One new insight emerging is that evolution of specialization is not a one-way street, and that instead there have been many transitions from specialization to generalization. These papers also shed light on the conditions and processes that lead to biases in transition rates in one direction or the other and on how fitness trade-offs affect such transitions.

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2013: Animal Clocks: When Science Meets Nature

Guest Editor: Prof. Bill Schwartz

2012: Animal Genomics of Adaptation

Guest Editors: Prof. Jacek Radwan and Dr. Wiesław Babik

This collection of review and research articles look to provide answers to the question “What is the genetic basis of adaptive evolutionary change?”. Specifically they look at the issues of the genomic nature of response to selection, propose gene duplication as a mechanism of genomic adaptation to a changing environment and quantitatively assess gene re-usage in the process of adaptation.

For more information on this Special Feature plus FREE access to all of the articles click here.

2011: Information processing in miniature brains

Guest Editor: Prof. Lars Chittka

Here we present an idiosyncratic range of current research perspectives on neural underpinnings and adaptive benefits (and costs) of such diverse phenomena as spatial memory, colour vision, attention, spontaneous behaviour initiation, memory dynamics, relational rule learning and sleep, in a range of animals from marine invertebrates with exquisitely simple nervous systems to social insects forming societies with many thousands of individuals working together as a "superorganism".

For more information on this Special Feature plus FREE access to all of the articles click here.

2010: Recent advances in Chinese palaeontology

Guest Editors: Xing Xu, Zhe-Xi Luo and Jia-Yu Rong

This special issue brought together some of the very latest studies aimed at resolving the problems of palaeontology and evolutionary biology based on new fossils from China. These fossils and their studies help to clarify some historical debates about a particular fossil group, or to raise new questions about history of life, or to pose a new challenge in our pursuit of science. These works on new Chinese fossils have covered the whole range of the diversity through the entire Phanerozoic fossil record.

All the articles in this special issue are FREE to access here.

2009: Geographic range limits of species

2008: Evolutionary dynamics of wild populations: the use of long-term pedigree data

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