A Blog Around The Clock

New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 62 new articles in PLoS ONE this week. As always, you should rate the articles, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about the papers. Here are my own picks for the week – you go and look for your own favourites:

Diurnal and Circadian Rhythms in the Tomato Transcriptome and Their Modulation by Cryptochrome Photoreceptors:

Circadian clocks are internal molecular time-keeping mechanisms that provide living organisms with the ability to adjust their growth and physiology and to anticipate diurnal environmental changes. Circadian clocks, without exception, respond to light and, in plants, light is the most potent and best characterized entraining stimulus. The capacity of plants to respond to light is achieved through a number of photo-perceptive proteins including cryptochromes and phytochromes. There is considerable experimental evidence demonstrating the roles of photoreceptors in providing light input to the clock. In order to identify genes regulated by diurnal and circadian rhythms, and to establish possible functional relations between photoreceptors and the circadian clock in tomato, we monitored the temporal transcription pattern in plants entrained to long-day conditions, either by large scale comparative profiling, or using a focused approach over a number of photosensory and clock-related genes by QRT-PCR. In parallel, focused transcription analyses were performed in cry1a- and in CRY2-OX tomato genotypes. We report a large series of transcript oscillations that shed light on the complex network of interactions among tomato photoreceptors and clock-related genes. Alteration of cryptochrome gene expression induced major changes in the rhythmic oscillations of several other gene transcripts. In particular, over-expression of CRY2 had an impact not only on day/night fluctuations but also on rhythmicity under constant light conditions. Evidence was found for widespread diurnal oscillations of transcripts encoding specific enzyme classes (e.g. carotenoid biosynthesis enzymes) as well as for post-transcriptional diurnal and circadian regulation of the CRY2 transcript.

Postglacial Colonisation Patterns and the Role of Isolation and Expansion in Driving Diversification in a Passerine Bird:

Pleistocene glacial cycles play a major role in diversification and speciation, although the relative importance of isolation and expansion in driving diversification remains debated. We analysed mitochondrial DNA sequence data from 15 great reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) populations distributed over the vast Eurasian breeding range of the species, and revealed unexpected postglacial expansion patterns from two glacial refugia. There were 58 different haplotypes forming two major clades, A and B. Clade A dominated in Western Europe with declining frequencies towards Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but showed a surprising increase in frequency in Western and Central Asia. Clade B dominated in the Middle East, with declining frequencies towards north in Central and Eastern Europe and was absent from Western Europe and Central Asia. A parsimonious explanation for these patterns is independent postglacial expansions from two isolated refugia, and mismatch distribution analyses confirmed this suggestion. Gene flow analyses showed that clade A colonised both Europe and Asia from a refugium in Europe, and that clade B expanded much later and colonised parts of Europe from a refugium in the Middle East. Great reed warblers in the eastern parts of the range have slightly paler plumage than western birds (sometimes treated as separate subspecies; A. a. zarudnyi and A. a. arundinaceus, respectively) and our results suggest that the plumage diversification took place during the easterly expansion of clade A. This supports the postglacial expansion hypothesis proposing that postglacial expansions drive diversification in comparatively short time periods. However, there is no indication of any (strong) reproductive isolation between clades and our data show that the refugia populations became separated during the last glaciation. This is in line with the Pleistocene speciation hypothesis invoking that much longer periods of time in isolation are needed for speciation to occur.

Evolution of Skull and Mandible Shape in Cats (Carnivora: Felidae):

The felid family consists of two major subgroups, the sabretoothed and the feline cats, to which all extant species belong, and are the most anatomically derived of all carnivores for predation on large prey with a precision killing bite. There has been much controversy and uncertainty about why the skulls and mandibles of sabretoothed and feline cats evolved to become so anatomically divergent, but previous models have focused on single characters and no unifying hypothesis of evolutionary shape changes has been formulated. Here I show that the shape of the skull and mandible in derived sabrecats occupy entirely different positions within overall morphospace from feline cats, and that the evolution of skull and mandible shape has followed very different paths in the two subgroups. When normalised for body-size differences, evolution of bite forces differ markedly in the two groups, and are much lower in derived sabrecats, and they show a significant relationship with size and cranial shape, whereas no such relationship is present in feline cats. Evolution of skull and mandible shape in modern cats has been governed by the need for uniform powerful biting irrespective of body size, whereas in sabrecats, shape evolution was governed by selective pressures for efficient predation with hypertrophied upper canines at high gape angles, and bite forces were secondary and became progressively weaker during sabrecat evolution. The current study emphasises combinations of new techniques for morphological shape analysis and biomechanical studies to formulate evolutionary hypotheses for difficult groups.

Dinosaurian Soft Tissues Interpreted as Bacterial Biofilms:

A scanning electron microscope survey was initiated to determine if the previously reported findings of “dinosaurian soft tissues” could be identified in situ within the bones. The results obtained allowed a reinterpretation of the formation and preservation of several types of these “tissues” and their content. Mineralized and non-mineralized coatings were found extensively in the porous trabecular bone of a variety of dinosaur and mammal species across time. They represent bacterial biofilms common throughout nature. Biofilms form endocasts and once dissolved out of the bone, mimic real blood vessels and osteocytes. Bridged trails observed in biofilms indicate that a previously viscous film was populated with swimming bacteria. Carbon dating of the film points to its relatively modern origin. A comparison of infrared spectra of modern biofilms with modern collagen and fossil bone coatings suggests that modern biofilms share a closer molecular make-up than modern collagen to the coatings from fossil bones. Blood cell size iron-oxygen spheres found in the vessels were identified as an oxidized form of formerly pyritic framboids. Our observations appeal to a more conservative explanation for the structures found preserved in fossil bone.

From Plants to Birds: Higher Avian Predation Rates in Trees Responding to Insect Herbivory:

An understanding of the evolution of potential signals from plants to the predators of their herbivores may provide exciting examples of co-evolution among multiple trophic levels. Understanding the mechanism behind the attraction of predators to plants is crucial to conclusions about co-evolution. For example, insectivorous birds are attracted to herbivore-damaged trees without seeing the herbivores or the defoliated parts, but it is not known whether birds use cues from herbivore-damaged plants with a specific adaptation of plants for this purpose. We examined whether signals from damaged trees attract avian predators in the wild and whether birds could use volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions or net photosynthesis of leaves as cues to detect herbivore-rich trees. We conducted a field experiment with mountain birches (Betula pubescens ssp. czerepanovii), their main herbivore (Epirrita autumnata) and insectivorous birds. Half of the trees had herbivore larvae defoliating trees hidden inside branch bags and half had empty bags as controls. We measured predation rate of birds towards artificial larvae on tree branches, and VOC emissions and net photosynthesis of leaves. The predation rate was higher in the herbivore trees than in the control trees. This confirms that birds use cues from trees to locate insect-rich trees in the wild. The herbivore trees had decreased photosynthesis and elevated emissions of many VOCs, which suggests that birds could use either one, or both, as cues. There was, however, large variation in how the VOC emission correlated with predation rate. Emissions of (E)-DMNT [(E)-4,8-dimethyl-1,3,7-nonatriene], β-ocimene and linalool were positively correlated with predation rate, while those of highly inducible green leaf volatiles were not. These three VOCs are also involved in the attraction of insect parasitoids and predatory mites to herbivore-damaged plants, which suggests that plants may not have specific adaptations to signal only to birds.

Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination in Fish Revisited: Prevalence, a Single Sex Ratio Response Pattern, and Possible Effects of Climate Change:

In gonochoristic vertebrates, sex determination mechanisms can be classified as genotypic (GSD) or temperature-dependent (TSD). Some cases of TSD in fish have been questioned, but the prevalent view is that TSD is very common in this group of animals, with three different response patterns to temperature. We analyzed field and laboratory data for the 59 fish species where TSD has been explicitly or implicitly claimed so far. For each species, we compiled data on the presence or absence of sex chromosomes and determined if the sex ratio response was obtained within temperatures that the species experiences in the wild. If so, we studied whether this response was statistically significant. We found evidence that many cases of observed sex ratio shifts in response to temperature reveal thermal alterations of an otherwise predominately GSD mechanism rather than the presence of TSD. We also show that in those fish species that actually have TSD, sex ratio response to increasing temperatures invariably results in highly male-biased sex ratios, and that even small changes of just 1-2°C can significantly alter the sex ratio from 1:1 (males:females) up to 3:1 in both freshwater and marine species. We demonstrate that TSD in fish is far less widespread than currently believed, suggesting that TSD is clearly the exception in fish sex determination. Further, species with TSD exhibit only one general sex ratio response pattern to temperature. However, the viability of some fish populations with TSD can be compromised through alterations in their sex ratios as a response to temperature fluctuations of the magnitude predicted by climate change.

And more:

A Model for the Detection of Moving Targets in Visual Clutter Inspired by Insect Physiology:

We present a computational model for target discrimination based on intracellular recordings from neurons in the fly visual system. Determining how insects detect and track small moving features, often against cluttered moving backgrounds, is an intriguing challenge, both from a physiological and a computational perspective. Previous research has characterized higher-order neurons within the fly brain, known as ‘small target motion detectors’ (STMD), that respond robustly to moving features, even when the velocity of the target is matched to the background (i.e. with no relative motion cues). We recorded from intermediate-order neurons in the fly visual system that are well suited as a component along the target detection pathway. This full-wave rectifying, transient cell (RTC) reveals independent adaptation to luminance changes of opposite signs (suggesting separate ON and OFF channels) and fast adaptive temporal mechanisms, similar to other cell types previously described. From this physiological data we have created a numerical model for target discrimination. This model includes nonlinear filtering based on the fly optics, the photoreceptors, the 1st order interneurons (Large Monopolar Cells), and the newly derived parameters for the RTC. We show that our RTC-based target detection model is well matched to properties described for the STMDs, such as contrast sensitivity, height tuning and velocity tuning. The model output shows that the spatiotemporal profile of small targets is sufficiently rare within natural scene imagery to allow our highly nonlinear ‘matched filter’ to successfully detect most targets from the background. Importantly, this model can explain this type of feature discrimination without the need for relative motion cues.

Lower Miocene Stratigraphy along the Panama Canal and Its Bearing on the Central American Peninsula:

Before the formation of the Central American Isthmus, there was a Central American Peninsula. Here we show that southern Central America existed as a peninsula as early as 19 Ma, based on new lithostratigraphic, biostratigraphic and strontium chemostratigraphic analyses of the formations exposed along the Gaillard Cut of the Panama Canal. Land mammals found in the Miocene Cucaracha Formation have similar body sizes to conspecific taxa in North America, indicating that there existed a terrestrial connection with North America that allowed gene flow between populations during this time. How long did this peninsula last? The answer hinges on the outcome of a stratigraphic dispute: To wit, is the terrestrial Cucaracha Formation older or younger than the marine La Boca Formation? Previous stratigraphic studies of the Panama Canal Basin have suggested that the Cucaracha Formation lies stratigraphically between the shallow-marine Culebra Formation and the shallow-to-upper-bathyal La Boca Formation, the latter containing the Emperador Limestone. If the La Boca Formation is younger than the Cucaracha Formation, as many think, then the peninsula was short-lived (1-2 m.y.), having been submerged in part by the transgression represented by the overlying La Boca Formation. On the other hand, our data support the view that the La Boca Formation is older than the Cucaracha Formation. Strontium dating shows that the La Boca Formation is older (23.07 to 20.62 Ma) than both the Culebra (19.83-19.12 Ma) and Cucaracha (Hemingfordian to Barstovian North American Land Mammal Ages; 19-14 Ma) formations. The Emperador Limestone is also older (21.24-20.99 Ma) than the Culebra and Cucaracha formations. What has been called the “La Boca Formation” (with the Emperador Limestone), is re-interpreted here as being the lower part of the Culebra Formation. Our new data sets demonstrate that the main axis of the volcanic arc in southern Central America more than likely existed as a peninsula connected to northern Central America and North America for much of the Miocene, which has profound implications for our understanding of the tectonic, climatic, oceanographic and biogeographic history related to the formation of the Isthmus of Panama.

Evolutionary Patterns in the Sequence and Structure of Transfer RNA: A Window into Early Translation and the Genetic Code:

Transfer RNA (tRNA) molecules play vital roles during protein synthesis. Their acceptor arms are aminoacylated with specific amino acid residues while their anticodons delimit codon specificity. The history of these two functions has been generally linked in evolutionary studies of the genetic code. However, these functions could have been differentially recruited as evolutionary signatures were left embedded in tRNA molecules. Here we built phylogenies derived from the sequence and structure of tRNA, we forced taxa into monophyletic groups using constraint analyses, tested competing evolutionary hypotheses, and generated timelines of amino acid charging and codon discovery. Charging of Sec, Tyr, Ser and Leu appeared ancient, while specificities related to Asn, Met, and Arg were derived. The timelines also uncovered an early role of the second and then first codon bases, identified codons for Ala and Pro as the most ancient, and revealed important evolutionary take-overs related to the loss of the long variable arm in tRNA. The lack of correlation between ancestries of amino acid charging and encoding indicated that the separate discoveries of these functions reflected independent histories of recruitment. These histories were probably curbed by co-options and important take-overs during early diversification of the living world.

Does an Insect’s Unconditioned Response to Sucrose Reveal Expectations of Reward?:

We asked whether and how a sequence of a honeybee’s experience with different reward magnitudes changes its subsequent unconditioned proboscis extension response (PER) to sucrose stimulation of the antennae, 24 hours after training, in the absence of reward, and under otherwise similar circumstances. We found that the bees that had experienced an increasing reward schedule extended their probosces earlier and during longer periods in comparison to bees that had experienced either decreasing or constant reward schedules, and that these effects at a later time depend upon the activation of memories formed on the basis of a specific property of the experienced reward, namely, that its magnitude increased over time. An anticipatory response to reward is typically thought of as being rooted in a subject’s expectations of reward. Therefore our results make us wonder to what extent a long-term ‘anticipatory’ adjustment of a honeybee’s PER is based upon an expectation of reward. Further experiments will aim to elucidate the neural substrates underlying reward anticipation in harnessed honeybees.

Quality of Pharmaceutical Industry Press Releases Based on Original Research:

Press releases are a popular vehicle to disseminate health information to the lay media. While the quality of press releases issued by scientific conferences and medical journals has been questioned, no efforts to assess pharmaceutical industry press releases have been made. Therefore, we sought to systematically examine pharmaceutical company press releases about original research for measures of quality. Press releases issued by the ten top selling, international pharmaceutical companies in the year 2005 were selected for evaluation. A total of 1028 electronic press releases were issued and 235 were based on original research. More than half (59%) reported results presented at a scientific meeting. Twenty-one percent of releases were not explicit about the source of original data. While harms or adverse events were commonly cited (76%), study limitations were rarely noted (6%). Almost one-third (29%) of releases did not quantify study results. Studies presented in abstract form were subsequently published within at least 20 months in 53% of cases. Pharmaceutical company press releases frequently report basic study details. However, readers should be cautioned by the preliminary nature of the data and lack of identified limitations. Methods to improve the reporting and interpretation of drug company press releases are desirable to prevent misleading media coverage.


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2008

    There is indeed some great stuff in PLoS this week. I’ve written the following blog posts on a couple of them: The seductive siren of soft tissue preservation: Ancient dinosaur flesh wasn’t ancient. Or dinosaur flesh and The Evolution of Cats: Sabertooth vs. Regular.