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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 13 new articles in PLoS ONE today. 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:

Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma cacao L):

Numerous collecting expeditions of Theobroma cacao L. germplasm have been undertaken in Latin-America. However, most of this germplasm has not contributed to cacao improvement because its relationship to cultivated selections was poorly understood. Germplasm labeling errors have impeded breeding and confounded the interpretation of diversity analyses. To improve the understanding of the origin, classification, and population differentiation within the species, 1241 accessions covering a large geographic sampling were genotyped with 106 microsatellite markers. After discarding mislabeled samples, 10 genetic clusters, as opposed to the two genetic groups traditionally recognized within T. cacao, were found by applying Bayesian statistics. This leads us to propose a new classification of the cacao germplasm that will enhance its management. The results also provide new insights into the diversification of Amazon species in general, with the pattern of differentiation of the populations studied supporting the palaeoarches hypothesis of species diversification. The origin of the traditional cacao cultivars is also enlightened in this study.

Investigating the Locomotion of the Sandfish in Desert Sand Using NMR-Imaging:

The sandfish (Scincus scincus) is a lizard having the remarkable ability to move through desert sand for significant distances. It is well adapted to living in loose sand by virtue of a combination of morphological and behavioural specializations. We investigated the bodyform of the sandfish using 3D-laserscanning and explored its locomotion in loose desert sand using fast nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging. The sandfish exhibits an in-plane meandering motion with a frequency of about 3 Hz and an amplitude of about half its body length accompanied by swimming-like (or trotting) movements of its limbs. No torsion of the body was observed, a movement required for a digging-behaviour. Simple calculations based on the Janssen model for granular material related to our findings on bodyform and locomotor behaviour render a local decompaction of the sand surrounding the moving sandfish very likely. Thus the sand locally behaves as a viscous fluid and not as a solid material. In this fluidised sand the sandfish is able to “swim” using its limbs.

Mitochondrial DNA Evidence for a Diversified Origin of Workers Building Mausoleum for First Emperor of China:

Variant studies on ancient DNA have attempted to reveal individual origin. Here, based on cloning sequencing and polymerase chain reaction-restriction fragment length polymorphisms, we analyzed polymorphisms in the first hypervariable region and coding regions of mitochondrial DNA of 19 human bone remains which were excavated from a tomb near the Terra Cotta Warriors and dated some 2,200 years before present. With the aim of shedding light on origins of these samples who were supposed to be workers building the mausoleum for the First Emperor of China, we compared them with 2,164 mtDNA profiles from 32 contemporary Chinese populations at both population and individual levels. Our results showed that mausoleum-building workers may be derived from very diverse sources of origin.

Dynamics of Alliance Formation and the Egalitarian Revolution:

Arguably the most influential force in human history is the formation of social coalitions and alliances (i.e., long-lasting coalitions) and their impact on individual power. Understanding the dynamics of alliance formation and its consequences for biological, social, and cultural evolution is a formidable theoretical challenge. In most great ape species, coalitions occur at individual and group levels and among both kin and non-kin. Nonetheless, ape societies remain essentially hierarchical, and coalitions rarely weaken social inequality. In contrast, human hunter-gatherers show a remarkable tendency to egalitarianism, and human coalitions and alliances occur not only among individuals and groups, but also among groups of groups. These observations suggest that the evolutionary dynamics of human coalitions can only be understood in the context of social networks and cognitive evolution. Here, we develop a stochastic model describing the emergence of networks of allies resulting from within-group competition for status or mates between individuals utilizing dyadic information. The model shows that alliances often emerge in a phase transition-like fashion if the group size, awareness, aggressiveness, and persuasiveness of individuals are large and the decay rate of individual affinities is small. With cultural inheritance of social networks, a single leveling alliance including all group members can emerge in several generations. We propose a simple and flexible theoretical approach for studying the dynamics of alliance emergence applicable where game-theoretic methods are not practical. Our approach is both scalable and expandable. It is scalable in that it can be generalized to larger groups, or groups of groups. It is expandable in that it allows for inclusion of additional factors such as behavioral, genetic, social, and cultural features. Our results suggest that a rapid transition from a hierarchical society of great apes to an egalitarian society of hunter-gatherers (often referred to as “egalitarian revolution”) could indeed follow an increase in human cognitive abilities. The establishment of stable group-wide egalitarian alliances creates conditions promoting the origin of cultural norms favoring the group interests over those of individuals.

Social Modulation during Songbird Courtship Potentiates Midbrain Dopaminergic Neurons:

Synaptic transmission onto dopaminergic neurons of the mammalian ventral tegmental area (VTA) can be potentiated by acute or chronic exposure to addictive drugs. Because rewarding behavior, such as social affiliation, can activate the same neural circuitry as addictive drugs, we tested whether the intense social interaction of songbird courtship may also potentiate VTA synaptic function. We recorded glutamatergic synaptic currents from VTA of male zebra finches who had experienced distinct social and behavioral conditions during the previous hour. The level of synaptic transmission to VTA neurons, as assayed by the ratio of α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) to N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) glutamate receptor mediated synaptic currents, was increased after males sang to females, and also after they saw females without singing, but not after they sang while alone. Potentiation after female exposure alone did not appear to result from stress, as it was not blocked by inhibition of glucocorticoid receptors. This potentiation was restricted to synapses of dopaminergic projection neurons, and appeared to be expressed postsynaptically. This study supports a model in which VTA dopaminergic neurons are more strongly activated during singing used for courtship than during non-courtship singing, and thus can provide social context-dependent modulation to forebrain areas. More generally, these results demonstrate that an intense social encounter can trigger the same pathways of neuronal plasticity as addictive drugs.

Towards a General Theory of Neural Computation Based on Prediction by Single Neurons:

Although there has been tremendous progress in understanding the mechanics of the nervous system, there has not been a general theory of its computational function. Here I present a theory that relates the established biophysical properties of single generic neurons to principles of Bayesian probability theory, reinforcement learning and efficient coding. I suggest that this theory addresses the general computational problem facing the nervous system. Each neuron is proposed to mirror the function of the whole system in learning to predict aspects of the world related to future reward. According to the model, a typical neuron receives current information about the state of the world from a subset of its excitatory synaptic inputs, and prior information from its other inputs. Prior information would be contributed by synaptic inputs representing distinct regions of space, and by different types of non-synaptic, voltage-regulated channels representing distinct periods of the past. The neuron’s membrane voltage is proposed to signal the difference between current and prior information (“prediction error” or “surprise”). A neuron would apply a Hebbian plasticity rule to select those excitatory inputs that are the most closely correlated with reward but are the least predictable, since unpredictable inputs provide the neuron with the most “new” information about future reward. To minimize the error in its predictions and to respond only when excitation is “new and surprising,” the neuron selects amongst its prior information sources through an anti-Hebbian rule. The unique inputs of a mature neuron would therefore result from learning about spatial and temporal patterns in its local environment, and by extension, the external world. Thus the theory describes how the structure of the mature nervous system could reflect the structure of the external world, and how the complexity and intelligence of the system might develop from a population of undifferentiated neurons, each implementing similar learning algorithms.

Practice Induces Function-Specific Changes in Brain Activity:

Practice can have a profound effect on performance and brain activity, especially if a task can be automated. Tasks that allow for automatization typically involve repeated encoding of information that is paired with a constant response. Much remains unknown about the effects of practice on encoding and response selection in an automated task. To investigate function-specific effects of automatization we employed a variant of a Sternberg task with optimized separation of activity associated with encoding and response selection by means of m-sequences. This optimized randomized event-related design allows for model free measurement of BOLD signals over the course of practice. Brain activity was measured at six consecutive runs of practice and compared to brain activity in a novel task. Prompt reductions were found in the entire cortical network involved in encoding after a single run of practice. Changes in the network associated with response selection were less robust and were present only after the third run of practice. This study shows that automatization causes heterogeneous decreases in brain activity across functional regions that do not strictly track performance improvement. This suggests that cognitive performance is supported by a dynamic allocation of multiple resources in a distributed network. Our findings may bear importance in understanding the role of automatization in complex cognitive performance, as increased encoding efficiency in early stages of practice possibly increases the capacity to otherwise interfering information.