From savory to sweet
Seeing a bird eat nectar from a flower is a common sight in our world. The ability to detect sugars, however, is not ancestral in the bird lineage, where most species were carnivorous. Toda et al. looked at receptors within the largest group of birds, the passerines or songbirds, and found that the emergence of sweet detection involved a single shift in a receptor for umami (see the Perspective by Barker). This ancient change facilitated sugar detection not just in nectar feeding birds, but also across the songbird group, and in a way that was different from, though convergent with, that in hummingbirds.
Early events in the evolutionary history of a clade can shape the sensory systems of descendant lineages. Although the avian ancestor may not have had a sweet receptor, the widespread incidence of nectar-feeding birds suggests multiple acquisitions of sugar detection. In this study, we identify a single early sensory shift of the umami receptor (the T1R1-T1R3 heterodimer) that conferred sweet-sensing abilities in songbirds, a large evolutionary radiation containing nearly half of all living birds. We demonstrate sugar responses across species with diverse diets, uncover critical sites underlying carbohydrate detection, and identify the molecular basis of sensory convergence between songbirds and nectar-specialist hummingbirds. This early shift shaped the sensory biology of an entire radiation, emphasizing the role of contingency and providing an example of the genetic basis of convergence in avian evolution.