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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 15 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:

Detection and Molecular Characterization of 9000-Year-Old Mycobacterium tuberculosis from a Neolithic Settlement in the Eastern Mediterranean:

Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the principal etiologic agent of human tuberculosis. It has no environmental reservoir and is believed to have co-evolved with its host over millennia. This is supported by skeletal evidence of the disease in early humans, and inferred from M. tuberculosis genomic analysis. Direct examination of ancient human remains for M. tuberculosis biomarkers should aid our understanding of the nature of prehistoric tuberculosis and the host/pathogen relationship. We used conventional PCR to examine bone samples with typical tuberculosis lesions from a woman and infant, who were buried together in the now submerged site of Atlit-Yam in the Eastern Mediterranean, dating from 9250-8160 years ago. Rigorous precautions were taken to prevent contamination, and independent centers were used to confirm authenticity of findings. DNA from five M tuberculosis genetic loci was detected and had characteristics consistent with extant genetic lineages. High performance liquid chromatography was used as an independent method of verification and it directly detected mycolic acid lipid biomarkers, specific for the M. tuberculosis complex. Human tuberculosis was confirmed by morphological and molecular methods in a population living in one of the first villages with evidence of agriculture and animal domestication. The widespread use of animals was not a source of infection but may have supported a denser human population that facilitated transmission of the tubercle bacillus. The similarity of the M. tuberculosis genetic signature with those of today gives support to the theory of a long-term co-existence of host and pathogen.

Composition and Function of Haemolymphatic Tissues in the European Common Shrew:

Studies of wild animals responding to their native parasites are essential if we are to understand how the immune system functions in the natural environment. While immune defence may bring increased survival, this may come at a resource cost to other physiological traits, including reproduction. Here, we tested the hypothesis that wild common shrews (Sorex araneus), which produce large numbers of offspring during the one breeding season of their short life span, forgo investment in immunity and immune system maintenance, as increased longevity is unlikely to bring further opportunities for mating. In particular, we predicted that adult shrews, with shorter expected lifespans, would not respond as effectively as young animals to infection. We examined haemolymphatic tissues from wild-caught common shrews using light and transmission electron microscopy, applied in conjunction with immunohistology. We compared composition and function of these tissues in shrews of different ages, and the extent and type of inflammatory reactions observed in response to natural parasitic infections. All ages seemed able to mount systemic, specific immune responses, but adult shrews showed some signs of lymphatic tissue exhaustion: lymphatic follicles in adults (n = 21) were both smaller than those in sub-adults (n = 18; Wald = 11.1, p<0.05) and exhibited greater levels of depletion (Wald = 13.3, p<0.05). Contrary to our expectations, shrews respond effectively to their natural parasites, and show little indication of immunosenescence as adults. The pancreas of Aselli, a unique lymphoid organ, may aid in providing efficient immune responses through the storage of large numbers of plasma cells. This may allow older animals to react effectively to previously encountered parasites, but infection by novel agents, and eventual depletion of plasma cell reserves, could both still be factors in the near-synchronous mortality of adult shrews observed shortly after breeding.

Discovery of a Distinct Superfamily of Kunitz-Type Toxin (KTT) from Tarantulas:

Kuntiz-type toxins (KTTs) have been found in the venom of animals such as snake, cone snail and sea anemone. The main ancestral function of Kunitz-type proteins was the inhibition of a diverse array of serine proteases, while toxic activities (such as ion-channel blocking) were developed under a variety of Darwinian selection pressures. How new functions were grafted onto an old protein scaffold and what effect Darwinian selection pressures had on KTT evolution remains a puzzle. Here we report the presence of a new superfamily of KTTs in spiders (Tarantulas: Ornithoctonus huwena and Ornithoctonus hainana), which share low sequence similarity to known KTTs and is clustered in a distinct clade in the phylogenetic tree of KTT evolution. The representative molecule of spider KTTs, HWTX-XI, purified from the venom of O. huwena, is a bi-functional protein which is a very potent trypsin inhibitor (about 30-fold more strong than BPTI) as well as a weak Kv1.1 potassium channel blocker. Structural analysis of HWTX-XI in 3-D by NMR together with comparative function analysis of 18 expressed mutants of this toxin revealed two separate sites, corresponding to these two activities, located on the two ends of the cone-shape molecule of HWTX-XI. Comparison of non-synonymous/synonymous mutation ratios (ω) for each site in spider and snake KTTs, as well as PBTI like body Kunitz proteins revealed high Darwinian selection pressure on the binding sites for Kv channels and serine proteases in snake, while only on the proteases in spider and none detected in body proteins, suggesting different rates and patterns of evolution among them. The results also revealed a series of key events in the history of spider KTT evolution, including the formation of a novel KTT family (named sub-Kuntiz-type toxins) derived from the ancestral native KTTs with the loss of the second disulfide bridge accompanied by several dramatic sequence modifications. These finding illustrate that the two activity sites of Kunitz-type toxins are functionally and evolutionally independent and provide new insights into effects of Darwinian selection pressures on KTT evolution, and mechanisms by which new functions can be grafted onto old protein scaffolds.

Optimal-Foraging Predator Favors Commensalistic Batesian Mimicry:

Mimicry, in which one prey species (the Mimic) imitates the aposematic signals of another prey (the Model) to deceive their predators, has attracted the general interest of evolutionary biologists. Predator psychology, especially how the predator learns and forgets, has recently been recognized as an important factor in a predator-prey system. This idea is supported by both theoretical and experimental evidence, but is also the source of a good deal of controversy because of its novel prediction that in a Model/Mimic relationship even a moderately unpalatable Mimic increases the risk of the Model (quasi-Batesian mimicry). We developed a psychology-based Monte Carlo model simulation of mimicry that incorporates a “Pavlovian” predator that practices an optimal foraging strategy, and examined how various ecological and psychological factors affect the relationships between a Model prey species and its Mimic. The behavior of the predator in our model is consistent with that reported by experimental studies, but our simulation’s predictions differed markedly from those of previous models of mimicry because a more abundant Mimic did not increase the predation risk of the Model when alternative prey were abundant. Moreover, a quasi-Batesian relationship emerges only when no or very few alternative prey items were available. Therefore, the availability of alternative prey rather than the precise method of predator learning critically determines the relationship between Model and Mimic. Moreover, the predation risk to the Model and Mimic is determined by the absolute density of the Model rather than by its density relative to that of the Mimic. Although these predictions are counterintuitive, they can explain various kinds of data that have been offered in support of competitive theories. Our model results suggest that to understand mimicry in nature it is important to consider the likely presence of alternative prey and the possibility that predation pressure is not constant.

Rare Codons Cluster:

Most amino acids are encoded by more than one codon. These synonymous codons are not used with equal frequency: in every organism, some codons are used more commonly, while others are more rare. Though the encoded protein sequence is identical, selective pressures favor more common codons for enhanced translation speed and fidelity. However, rare codons persist, presumably due to neutral drift. Here, we determine whether other, unknown factors, beyond neutral drift, affect the selection and/or distribution of rare codons. We have developed a novel algorithm that evaluates the relative rareness of a nucleotide sequence used to produce a given protein sequence. We show that rare codons, rather than being randomly scattered across genes, often occur in large clusters. These clusters occur in numerous eukaryotic and prokaryotic genomes, and are not confined to unusual or rarely expressed genes: many highly expressed genes, including genes for ribosomal proteins, contain rare codon clusters. A rare codon cluster can impede ribosome translation of the rare codon sequence. These results indicate additional selective pressures govern the use of synonymous codons, and specifically that local pauses in translation can be beneficial for protein biogenesis.