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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 21 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. You can now also easily place articles on various social services (CiteULike, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook and Digg) with just one click. Here are my own picks for the week – you go and look for your own favourites:

Rapid Acoustic Survey for Biodiversity Appraisal:

Biodiversity assessment remains one of the most difficult challenges encountered by ecologists and conservation biologists. This task is becoming even more urgent with the current increase of habitat loss. Many methods-from rapid biodiversity assessments (RBA) to all-taxa biodiversity inventories (ATBI)-have been developed for decades to estimate local species richness. However, these methods are costly and invasive. Several animals-birds, mammals, amphibians, fishes and arthropods-produce sounds when moving, communicating or sensing their environment. Here we propose a new concept and method to describe biodiversity. We suggest to forego species or morphospecies identification used by ATBI and RBA respectively but rather to tackle the problem at another evolutionary unit, the community level. We also propose that a part of diversity can be estimated and compared through a rapid acoustic analysis of the sound produced by animal communities. We produced α and β diversity indexes that we first tested with 540 simulated acoustic communities. The α index, which measures acoustic entropy, shows a logarithmic correlation with the number of species within the acoustic community. The β index, which estimates both temporal and spectral dissimilarities, is linearly linked to the number of unshared species between acoustic communities. We then applied both indexes to two closely spaced Tanzanian dry lowland coastal forests. Indexes reveal for this small sample a lower acoustic diversity for the most disturbed forest and acoustic dissimilarities between the two forests suggest that degradation could have significantly decreased and modified community composition. Our results demonstrate for the first time that an indicator of biological diversity can be reliably obtained in a non-invasive way and with a limited sampling effort. This new approach may facilitate the appraisal of animal diversity at large spatial and temporal scales.

A Survey of Honey Bee Colony Losses in the U.S., Fall 2007 to Spring 2008:

Honey bees are an essential component of modern agriculture. A recently recognized ailment, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), devastates colonies, leaving hives with a complete lack of bees, dead or alive. Up to now, estimates of honey bee population decline have not included losses occurring during the wintering period, thus underestimating actual colony mortality. Our survey quantifies the extent of colony losses in the United States over the winter of 2007-2008. Surveys were conducted to quantify and identify management factors (e.g. operation size, hive migration) that contribute to high colony losses in general and CCD symptoms in particular. Over 19% of the country’s estimated 2.44 million colonies were surveyed. A total loss of 35.8% of colonies was recorded; an increase of 11.4% compared to last year. Operations that pollinated almonds lost, on average, the same number of colonies as those that did not. The 37.9% of operations that reported having at least some of their colonies die with a complete lack of bees had a total loss of 40.8% of colonies compared to the 17.1% loss reported by beekeepers without this symptom. Large operations were more likely to have this symptom suggesting that a contagious condition may be a causal factor. Sixty percent of all colonies that were reported dead in this survey died without dead bees, and thus possibly suffered from CCD. In PA, losses varied with region, indicating that ambient temperature over winter may be an important factor. Of utmost importance to understanding the recent losses and CCD is keeping track of losses over time and on a large geographic scale. Given that our surveys are representative of the losses across all beekeeping operations, between 0.75 and 1.00 million honey bee colonies are estimated to have died in the United States over the winter of 2007-2008. This article is an extensive survey of U.S. beekeepers across the continent, serving as a reference for comparison with future losses as well as providing guidance to future hypothesis-driven research on the causes of colony mortality.

Testing the Goodness of Supplementary Feeding to Enhance Population Viability in an Endangered Vulture:

Human-predator conflicts are directly or indirectly threatening many species with extinction. Thus, biologists are urged to find simple solutions to complex situations while avoiding unforeseen conservation outcomes. The provision of supplementary food at artificial feeding sites (AFS) is frequently used in the conservation of scavenger bird populations currently suffering from indirect poisoning, although no scientific studies on its effectiveness have been conducted. We used a long-term data set of 95 individually marked birds from the largest European core of the endangered bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) to test the long-term effects of specific AFS for bearded vultures on their survival rates (by CMR models) and population dynamics (by Monte Carlo simulations) in an area where fatalities derived from illegal poisoning and the use of other toxics like veterinary drugs have increased over the last several years. Our data support the positive relationship between the use of AFS and survival. However, contrary to theoretical predictions (e.g. high and more stable adult survival among long-lived species), the use of AFS increased only survival of pre-adults. Moreover, AFS buffered the effects of illegal poisoning on this age-class, while adult survival decreased over years. Our simulations predicted a maximum value of extinction probability over a time horizon of 50 years. Population projections run with survival rates expected in scenarios without poisoning predicted the situation of least conservation concern, while including only AFS can maintain a large floater surplus that may delay population decline but fails to reduce poisoning risk among adults. Although AFS are not effective to save bearded vultures from an expected population decline, they delay population extinction and can be a useful tool for prolonging population viability while combating illegal and indirect poisoning. The eradication of different sources of poisoning is of top priority to ensure the long-term viability of this and many other species.

Low Density Lipoproteins as Circulating Fast Temperature Sensors:

The potential physiological significance of the nanophase transition of neutral lipids in the core of low density lipoprotein (LDL) particles is dependent on whether the rate is fast enough to integrate small (±2°C) temperature changes in the blood circulation. Using sub-second, time-resolved small-angle X-ray scattering technology with synchrotron radiation, we have monitored the dynamics of structural changes within LDL, which were triggered by temperature-jumps and -drops, respectively. Our findings reveal that the melting transition is complete within less than 10 milliseconds. The freezing transition proceeds slowly with a half-time of approximately two seconds. Thus, the time period over which LDL particles reside in cooler regions of the body readily facilitates structural reorientation of the apolar core lipids. Low density lipoproteins, the biological nanoparticles responsible for the transport of cholesterol in blood, are shown to act as intrinsic nano-thermometers, which can follow the periodic temperature changes during blood circulation. Our results demonstrate that the lipid core in LDL changes from a liquid crystalline to an oily state within fractions of seconds. This may, through the coupling to the protein structure of LDL, have important repercussions on current theories of the role of LDL in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis.

Genetic Variation Stimulated by Epigenetic Modification:

Homologous recombination is essential for maintaining genomic integrity. A common repair mechanism, it uses a homologous or homeologous donor as a template for repair of a damaged target gene. Such repair must be regulated, both to identify appropriate donors for repair, and to avoid excess or inappropriate recombination. We show that modifications of donor chromatin structure can promote homology-directed repair. These experiments demonstrate that either the activator VP16 or the histone chaperone, HIRA, accelerated gene conversion approximately 10-fold when tethered within the donor array for Ig gene conversion in the chicken B cell line DT40. VP16 greatly increased levels of acetylated histones H3 and H4, while tethered HIRA did not affect histone acetylation, but caused an increase in local nucleosome density and levels of histone H3.3. Thus, epigenetic modification can stimulate genetic variation. The evidence that distinct activating modifications can promote similar functional outcomes suggests that a variety of chromatin changes may regulate homologous recombination, and that disregulation of epigenetic marks may have deleterious genetic consequences.