Defenses against keratinolytic bacteria in birds living in radioactively contaminated areas.

Die Naturwissenschaften

PubMedID: 27542091

Ruiz-Rodríguez M, Møller AP, Mousseau TA, Soler JJ. Defenses against keratinolytic bacteria in birds living in radioactively contaminated areas. Naturwissenschaften. 2016;103(9-10):71.
Microorganisms have shaped the evolution of a variety of defense mechanisms against pathogenic infections. Radioactivity modifies bacterial communities and, therefore, bird hosts breeding in contaminated areas are expected to adapt to the new bacterial environment. We tested this hypothesis in populations of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) from a gradient of background radiation levels at Chernobyl and uncontaminated controls from Denmark. Investment in defenses against keratinolytic bacteria was measured from feather structure (i. e. , susceptibility to degradation) and uropygial secretions. We studied degradability of tail feathers from areas varying in contamination in laboratory experiments using incubation of feathers with a feather-degrading bacterium, Bacillus licheniformis, followed by measurement of the amount of keratin digested. The size of uropygial glands and secretion amounts were quantified, followed by antimicrobial tests against B. licheniformis and quantification of wear of feathers. Feathers of males, but not of females, from highly contaminated areas degraded at a lower rate than those from medium and low contamination areas. However, feathers of both sexes from the Danish populations showed little evidence of degradation. Individual barn swallows from the more contaminated areas of Ukraine produced the largest uropygial secretions with higher antimicrobial activity, although wear of feathers did not differ among males from different populations. In Denmark, swallows produced smaller quantities of uropygial secretion with lower antimicrobial activity, which was similar to swallow populations from uncontaminated areas in Ukraine. Therefore, barn swallows breeding in contaminated areas invested more in all defenses against keratinolytic bacteria than in uncontaminated areas of Ukraine and Denmark, although they had similar levels of feather wear. Strong natural selection exerted by radioactivity may have selected for individuals with higher defense capacity against bacterial infections during the 30 years since the Chernobyl disaster.