Genomic analysis of Tibetan ground tits identifies molecular adaptations associated with cooperative breeding

Curr Zool. 2022 Sep 6;69(5):620-630. doi: 10.1093/cz/zoac067. eCollection 2023 Oct.


Cooperative breeding is a sophisticated altruistic social behavior that helps social animals to adapt to harsh environments. The Tibetan ground tit, Pseudopodoces humilis, is a high-altitude bird endemic to the Tibetan plateau. Recently, it has become an exciting system for studying the evolution of facultative cooperative breeding. To test for molecular adaptations associated with cooperative breeding, we resequenced the whole genome of ground tits from 6 wild populations that display remarkable variation in the frequency of cooperative breeding. Population structure analyses showed that the 6 populations were divided into 4 lineages, which is congruent with the major geographical distribution of the sampling sites. Using genome-wide selective sweep analysis, we identified putative positively selected genes (PSGs) in groups of tits that displayed high and low cooperative breeding rates. The total number of PSGs varied from 146 to 722 in high cooperative breeding rate populations, and from 272 to 752 in low cooperative breeding rate populations. Functional enrichment analysis of these PSGs identified several significantly enriched ontologies related to oxytocin signaling, estrogen signaling, and insulin secretion. PSGs involved in these functional ontologies suggest that molecular adaptations in hormonal regulation may have played important roles in shaping the evolution of cooperative breeding in the ground tit. Taken together, our study provides candidate genes and functional ontologies involved in molecular adaptations associated with cooperative breeding in Tibetan ground tits, and calls for a better understanding of the genetic roles in the evolution of cooperative breeding.

Keywords: cooperative breeding; ground tit; population genomics; social behavior.