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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 13 new articles published last night and another 12 new articles published today in PLoS ONE. 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:

An Intracellular Antioxidant Determines the Expression of a Melanin-Based Signal in a Bird:

To understand how traits used in animal communication evolved and are maintained as honest signals, we need to understand the mechanisms that prevent cheating. It has been proposed that honest signaling is guaranteed by the costs associated with the signal expression. However, the nature of these costs is still under debate. Melanin-based signals are intriguing because their expression seems to be tightly controlled by genes and the resource involved (i.e. melanin) seems to be not limited. However, in vertebrates, low levels of a key intracellular antioxidant (i.e. glutathione) are needed to promote melanogenesis. We propose that melanin-based ornaments can signal the ability to cope with oxidative stress because those individuals with low enough levels of glutathione, such as those required for melanin production, should manage well the whole of the antioxidant machinery in order to maintain a certain oxidative status. We analysed the expression of a melanin-based signal: the well-known black stripe of the great tit (Parus major). Great tit nestlings were injected with a specific inhibitor of glutathione production (DL-buthionine-S,R-sulfoximine; BSO) throughout their development. BSO effectively decreased intracellular glutathione levels without apparent side effects on growth or body condition. Instead, treated nestlings developed black breast stripes 70-100% larger than controls. Moreover, treated nestlings also compensated the decrease in glutathione levels by increasing the levels of circulating antioxidants. Results indicate that melanin-based signals can be at least partially permeable to environmental influences such as those associated to oxidative stress. They also reveal a potential handicap associated to the expression of this kind of signals. Finally, although other contributing factors could have been present, our findings emphasize the role of oxidative stress in shaping the evolution of animal signals in general and, in particular, those produced by pigments.

The Evolution of HoxD-11 Expression in the Bird Wing: Insights from Alligator mississippiensis:

Comparative morphology identifies the digits of the wing of birds as 1,2 and 3, but they develop at embryological positions that become digits 2, 3 and 4 in other amniotes. A hypothesis to explain this is that a homeotic frame shift of digital identity occurred in the evolution of the bird wing, such that digits 1,2 and 3 are developing from embryological positions 2, 3 and 4. Digit 1 of the mouse is the only digit that shows no late expression of HoxD-11. This is also true for the anterior digit of the bird wing, suggesting this digit is actually a digit 1. If this is the case, we can expect closer relatives of birds to show no HoxD-11 expression only in digit 1. To test this prediction we investigate HoxD-11 expression in crocodilians, the closest living relatives of birds. Using degenerate primers we cloned a 606 nucleotide fragment of exon 1 of the alligator HoxD-11 gene and used it for whole-mount in-situ detection in alligator embryos. We found that in the pentadactyl forelimbs of alligator, as in the mouse, late expression of HoxD-11 is absent only in digit 1. The ancestral condition for amniotes is that late-phase HoxD-11 expression is absent only in digit 1. The biphalangeal morphology and lack of HoxD-11 expression of the anterior digit of the wing is like digit 1 of alligator and mouse, but its embryological position as digit 2 is derived. HoxD-11 expression in alligator is consistent with the hypothesis that both digit morphology as well as HoxD-11 expression are shifted towards posterior in the bird wing.

Loss of Cannabinoid Receptor CB1 Induces Preterm Birth:

Preterm birth accounting approximate 10% of pregnancies in women is a tremendous social, clinical and economic burden. However, its underlying causes remain largely unknown. Emerging evidence suggests that endocannabinoid signaling via cannabinoid receptor CB1 play critical roles in multiple early pregnancy events in both animals and humans. Since our previous studies demonstrated that loss of CB1 defers the normal implantation window in mice, we surmised that CB1 deficiency would influence parturition events. Exploiting mouse models with targeted deletion of Cnr1, Cnr2 and Ptgs1 encoding CB1, CB2 and cyclooxygenase-1, respectively, we examined consequences of CB1 or CB2 silencing on the onset of parturition. We observed that genetic or pharmacological inactivation of CB1, but not CB2, induced preterm labor in mice. Radioimmunoassay analysis of circulating levels of ovarian steroid hormones revealed that premature birth resulting from CB1 inactivation is correlated with altered progesterone/estrogen ratios prior to parturition. More strikingly, the phenotypic defects of prolonged pregnancy length and parturition failure in mice missing Ptgs1 were corrected by introducing CB1 deficiency into Ptgs1 null mice. In addition, loss of CB1 resulted in aberrant secretions of corticotrophin-releasing hormone and corticosterone during late gestation. The pathophysiological significance of this altered corticotrophin-releasing hormone-driven endocrine activity in the absence of CB1 was evident from our subsequent findings that a selective corticotrophin-releasing hormone antagonist was able to restore the normal parturition timing in Cnr1 deficient mice. In contrast, wild-type females receiving excessive levels of corticosterone induced preterm birth. CB1 deficiency altering normal progesterone and estrogen levels induces preterm birth in mice. This defect is independent of prostaglandins produced by cyclooxygenase-1. Moreover, CB1 inactivation resulted in aberrant corticotrophin-releasing hormone and corticosterone activities prior to parturition, suggesting that CB1 regulates labor by interacting with the corticotrophin-releasing hormone-driven endocrine axis.

Distractor Inhibition Predicts Individual Differences in the Attentional Blink:

The attentional blink (AB) refers to humans’ impaired ability to detect the second of two targets (T2) in a rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) stream of distractors if it appears within 200-600 ms of the first target (T1). Here we examined whether humans’ ability to inhibit distractors in the RSVP stream is a key determinant of individual differences in T1 performance and AB magnitude. We presented subjects with RSVP streams (93.3 ms/item) of letters containing white distractors, a red T1 and a green T2. Subjects’ ability to suppress distractors was assessed by determining the extent to which their second target performance was primed by a preceding distractor that shared the same identity as T2. Individual subjects’ magnitude of T2 priming from this distractor was found to be negatively correlated with their T1 accuracy and positively related to their AB magnitude. In particular, subjects with attenuated ABs showed negative priming (i.e., worse T2 performance when the priming distractor appeared in the RSVP stream compared to when it was absent), whereas those with large ABs displayed positive priming (i.e., better T2 performance when the priming distractor appeared in the RSVP stream compared to when it was absent). Thus, a subject’s ability to suppress distractors, as assessed by T2 priming magnitude, predicted both their T1 performance and AB magnitude. These results confirm that distractor suppression plays a key role in RSVP target selection and support the hypothesis that the AB results, at least in part, from a failure of distractor inhibition.

Amerindian Helicobacter pylori Strains Go Extinct, as European Strains Expand Their Host Range:

We studied the diversity of bacteria and host in the H. pylori-human model. The human indigenous bacterium H. pylori diverged along with humans, into African, European, Asian and Amerindian groups. Of these, Amerindians have the least genetic diversity. Since niche diversity widens the sets of resources for colonizing species, we predicted that the Amerindian H. pylori strains would be the least diverse. We analyzed the multilocus sequence (7 housekeeping genes) of 131 strains: 19 cultured from Africans, 36 from Spanish, 11 from Koreans, 43 from Amerindians and 22 from South American Mestizos. We found that all strains that had been cultured from Africans were African strains (hpAfrica1), all from Spanish were European (hpEurope) and all from Koreans were hspEAsia but that Amerindians and Mestizos carried mixed strains: hspAmerind and hpEurope strains had been cultured from Amerindians and hpEurope and hpAfrica1 were cultured from Mestizos. The least genetically diverse H. pylori strains were hspAmerind. Strains hpEurope were the most diverse and showed remarkable multilocus sequence mosaicism (indicating recombination). The lower genetic structure in hpEurope strains is consistent with colonization of a diversity of hosts. If diversity is important for the success of H. pylori, then the low diversity of Amerindian strains might be linked to their apparent tendency to disappear. This suggests that Amerindian strains may lack the needed diversity to survive the diversity brought by non-Amerindian hosts.