The evolution of avian sweet taste perception

Abstract The sense of taste is crucial: it allows animals to perceive the external world and to select non-toxic, nutritious food. Sweet taste—the ability to detect carbohydrates—is highly conserved, at least across most non-carnivorous mammals. Birds, however, appear to be missing the canonical sweet receptor, perhaps because they descended from carnivorous dinosaurs. In the face of gene loss, hummingbirds regained sweet detection by re-purposing their savory (umami) receptor; but how the multitude of other fruit- and nectar-eating birds detect dietary sugars is still unknown. In our lab we pursue a multidisciplinary approach to track down the sweet receptor in distantly related groups of birds, and to investigate the widespread consequences of changes in sensory perception on an organismal and ecological level.

We seek an applicant interested in an integrated PhD project combining molecular biology, cell-culture assays, behavioral testing, and bioinformatics to investigate the evolution of sweet taste perception in key groups of birds across the phylogeny. We will use existing methods and also will begin to develop new tools to examine broad questions related to the evolution of sensory processing, convergent evolution, and coevolution of taste and digestive physiologies.

Keywords sensory perception, convergent evolution, taste behavior, cell-culture assays, frugivory, nectarivory, diet, digestive physiology, T1Rs

Main advisor Maude Baldwin, MPIO Seewiesen

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