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New and Exciting in PLoS

Lots of interesting stuff in PLoS Medicine and PLoS Biology this week, as well as a special, one-day-in-advance paper in PLoS ONE:

Small-Bodied Humans from Palau, Micronesia:

Newly discovered fossil assemblages of small bodied Homo sapiens from Palau, Micronesia possess characters thought to be taxonomically primitive for the genus Homo. Recent surface collection and test excavation in limestone caves in the rock islands of Palau, Micronesia, has produced a sizeable sample of human skeletal remains dating roughly between 940-2890 cal ybp. Preliminary analysis indicates that this material is important for two reasons. First, individuals from the older time horizons are small in body size even relative to “pygmoid” populations from Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and thus may represent a marked case of human insular dwarfism. Second, while possessing a number of derived features that align them with Homo sapiens, the human remains from Palau also exhibit several skeletal traits that are considered to be primitive for the genus Homo. These features may be previously unrecognized developmental correlates of small body size and, if so, they may have important implications for interpreting the taxonomic affinities of fossil specimens of Homo.

Predators Make (Temporary) Escape from Coevolutionary Arms Race:

Arguably cute and spanning at most 20 cm from head to tail, the rough-skinned newt packs pretty near the most poisonous punch known to the animal kingdom. Taricha granulosa, like all species in its genus, exudes an exceptionally potent neurotoxin, tetrodotoxin (TTX) from its skin glands. Some Taricha newts could wipe out thousands of mice or a clutch of humans with their toxic issue. But why produce enough poison to kill a potential predator several times over? To discourage the one predator–the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)–that’s resistant enough to the poison to count on newts as a food source.

Phenotypic Mismatches Reveal Escape from Arms-Race Coevolution:

Arms races between natural enemies can lead to the rapid evolution of extreme traits, high degrees of specialization, and the formation of new species. They also serve as the ecological model for the evolution of drug resistance by diseases and for host-pathogen interactions in general. Revealing who wins these arms races and how they do so is critical to our understanding of these processes. Capitalizing on the geographic mosaic of species interactions, we examined the dynamics of the arms race between snakes and their toxic newt prey. Garter snakes in some populations have evolved dramatic resistance to the tetrodotoxin defense of the their local prey. By evaluating the pattern of mismatches between toxicity and resistance, we discovered that predators sometimes escape the arms race through the evolution of extreme resistance, but that prey never come out ahead. The reason for this one-sided outcome appears to depend on the molecular genetic basis of resistance in snakes, wherein changes to a single amino acid residue can confer huge differences in resistance.

A Role for Parasites in Stabilising the Fig-Pollinator Mutualism:

Much biodiversity ultimately relies on cooperation between different species, interactions called mutualisms. Benefits to one partner are gained by obtaining resources from the other, presenting a problem: what prevents one partner from exploiting the other at an unsustainable level? Fig trees are pollinated by tiny wasps that only develop successfully themselves by each destroying a single female fig flower that would otherwise become a seed. Wasps tend to occur in long flowers near the fruit’s centre, with seeds developing near the outer wall. Female wasps therefore favour long flowers for their offspring, and leave short flowers to develop into seeds. To understand why wasps exploit fig trees sustainably, we need to explain why this preference has evolved. The fig-pollinator mutualism is exploited by small parasitic wasps that attack pollinators from outside the fruit. In three Australasian fig species, we found that pollinator offspring in the outer layer of flowers were more likely to be parasitized than those in the inner layer. Our data thus indicate that long flowers provide enemy-free space for pollinator offspring at the fruit’s centre. We suggest that the provision of variable length flowers by fig trees may contribute to mutualism stability by indirectly involving a third party: parasitic wasps, previously regarded as detrimental to both mutualists.

Observational Research, Randomised Trials, and Two Views of Medical Science:

Two views exist of medical science: one emphasises discovery and explanation, the other emphasises evaluation of interventions. This essay analyses in what respects these views differ, and how they lead to opposite research hierarchies, with randomisation on top for evaluation and at bottom for discovery and explanation. The two views also differ strongly in their thinking about the role of prior specification of a research hypothesis. Hence, the essay explores the controversies surrounding subgroup analyses and multiplicity of analyses in observational research. This exploration leads to a rethinking of the universally accepted hierarchy of strength of study designs, which has the randomised trial on top: this hierarchy may be confounded by the prior odds of the research hypothesis. Finally, the strong opinions that are sometimes displayed in pitting the two types of medical science against each other may be explained by a difference in “loss function”: the difference in penalty for being wrong.

Further Evidence that Exclusive Breast-Feeding Reduces Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission Compared With Mixed Feeding:

The critical role of breast-feeding in improving infant and under-five-year survival in resource-limited settings has been well documented since the mid-1970s. A pooled analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) of a number of studies on the impact of breast-feeding on child survival showed that the protective effect is strongest in the first six months of life, with a 4-6-fold survival benefit for breast-fed infants [1]. The benefit extends throughout the first year of life, with a 1.4-1.8-fold protective effect against mortality during months six through twelve.

Determining Origins and Causes of Childhood Obesity via Mendelian Randomization Analysis:

Childhood obesity has become a serious public health problem worldwide. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in three children and adolescents are currently overweight/obese [1]. The adverse complications of childhood obesity on physical health and psychosocial development are tremendous [2]. Moreover, pediatric obesity may substantially increase future burden of cardiovascular disease and other morbidities in adulthood.