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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 20 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:

Rich Pickings Near Large Communal Roosts Favor ‘Gang’ Foraging by Juvenile Common Ravens, Corvus corax:

Ravens (Corvus corax) feed primarily on rich but ephemeral carcasses of large animals, which are usually defended by territorial pairs of adults. Non-breeding juveniles forage socially and aggregate in communal winter roosts, and these appear to function as ‘information centers’ regarding the location of the rare food bonanzas: individuals search independently of one another and pool their effort by recruiting each other at roosts. However, at a large raven roost in Newborough on Anglesey, North Wales, some juveniles have been observed recently to forage in ‘gangs’ and to roost separately from other birds. Here we adapt a general model of juvenile common raven foraging behavior where, in addition to the typical co-operative foraging strategy, such gang foraging behavior could be evolutionarily stable near winter raven roosts. We refocus the model on the conditions under which this newly documented, yet theoretically anticipated, gang-based foraging has been observed. In the process, we show formally how the trade off between search efficiency and social opportunity can account for the existence of the alternative social foraging tactics that have been observed in this species. This work serves to highlight a number of fruitful avenues for future research, both from a theoretical and empirical perspective.

Does My Step Look Big In This? A Visual Illusion Leads To Safer Stepping Behaviour:

Tripping is a common factor in falls and a typical safety strategy to avoid tripping on steps or stairs is to increase foot clearance over the step edge. In the present study we asked whether the perceived height of a step could be increased using a visual illusion and whether this would lead to the adoption of a safer stepping strategy, in terms of greater foot clearance over the step edge. The study also addressed the controversial question of whether motor actions are dissociated from visual perception. 21 young, healthy subjects perceived the step to be higher in a configuration of the horizontal-vertical illusion compared to a reverse configuration (p = 0.01). During a simple stepping task, maximum toe elevation changed by an amount corresponding to the size of the visual illusion (p<0.001). Linear regression analyses showed highly significant associations between perceived step height and maximum toe elevation for all conditions. The perceived height of a step can be manipulated using a simple visual illusion, leading to the adoption of a safer stepping strategy in terms of greater foot clearance over a step edge. In addition, the strong link found between perception of a visual illusion and visuomotor action provides additional support to the view that the original, controversial proposal by Goodale and Milner (1992) of two separate and distinct visual streams for perception and visuomotor action should be re-evaluated.

Sleep Restriction Increases the Risk of Developing Cardiovascular Diseases by Augmenting Proinflammatory Responses through IL-17 and CRP:

Sleep restriction, leading to deprivation of sleep, is common in modern 24-h societies and is associated with the development of health problems including cardiovascular diseases. Our objective was to investigate the immunological effects of prolonged sleep restriction and subsequent recovery sleep, by simulating a working week and following recovery weekend in a laboratory environment. After 2 baseline nights of 8 hours time in bed (TIB), 13 healthy young men had only 4 hours TIB per night for 5 nights, followed by 2 recovery nights with 8 hours TIB. 6 control subjects had 8 hours TIB per night throughout the experiment. Heart rate, blood pressure, salivary cortisol and serum C-reactive protein (CRP) were measured after the baseline (BL), sleep restriction (SR) and recovery (REC) period. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were collected at these time points, counted and stimulated with PHA. Cell proliferation was analyzed by thymidine incorporation and cytokine production by ELISA and RT-PCR. CRP was increased after SR (145% of BL; p<0.05), and continued to increase after REC (231% of BL; p<0.05). Heart rate was increased after REC (108% of BL; p<0.05). The amount of circulating NK-cells decreased (65% of BL; p<0.005) and the amount of B-cells increased (121% of BL; p<0.005) after SR, but these cell numbers recovered almost completely during REC. Proliferation of stimulated PBMC increased after SR (233% of BL; p<0.05), accompanied by increased production of IL-1β (137% of BL; p<0.05), IL-6 (163% of BL; p<0.05) and IL-17 (138% of BL; p<0.05) at mRNA level. After REC, IL-17 was still increased at the protein level (119% of BL; p<0.05). 5 nights of sleep restriction increased lymphocyte activation and the production of proinflammatory cytokines including IL-1β IL-6 and IL-17; they remained elevated after 2 nights of recovery sleep, accompanied by increased heart rate and serum CRP, 2 important risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. Therefore, long-term sleep restriction may lead to persistent changes in the immune system and the increased production of IL-17 together with CRP may increase the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing:

Illegal and unreported fishing contributes to overexploitation of fish stocks and is a hindrance to the recovery of fish populations and ecosystems. This study is the first to undertake a world-wide analysis of illegal and unreported fishing. Reviewing the situation in 54 countries and on the high seas, we estimate that lower and upper estimates of the total value of current illegal and unreported fishing losses worldwide are between $10 bn and $23.5 bn annually, representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes. Our data are of sufficient resolution to detect regional differences in the level and trend of illegal fishing over the last 20 years, and we can report a significant correlation between governance and the level of illegal fishing. Developing countries are most at risk from illegal fishing, with total estimated catches in West Africa being 40% higher than reported catches. Such levels of exploitation severely hamper the sustainable management of marine ecosystems. Although there have been some successes in reducing the level of illegal fishing in some areas, these developments are relatively recent and follow growing international focus on the problem. This paper provides the baseline against which successful action to curb illegal fishing can be judged.

How Many Loci Does it Take to DNA Barcode a Crocus?:

DNA barcoding promises to revolutionize the way taxonomists work, facilitating species identification by using small, standardized portions of the genome as substitutes for morphology. The concept has gained considerable momentum in many animal groups, but the higher plant world has been largely recalcitrant to the effort. In plants, efforts are concentrated on various regions of the plastid genome, but no agreement exists as to what kinds of regions are ideal, though most researchers agree that more than one region is necessary. One reason for this discrepancy is differences in the tests that are used to evaluate the performance of the proposed regions. Most tests have been made in a floristic setting, where the genetic distance and therefore the level of variation of the regions between taxa is large, or in a limited set of congeneric species. Here we present the first in-depth coverage of a large taxonomic group, all 86 known species (except two doubtful ones) of crocus. Even six average-sized barcode regions do not identify all crocus species. This is currently an unrealistic burden in a barcode context. Whereas most proposed regions work well in a floristic context, the majority will – as is the case in crocus – undoubtedly be less efficient in a taxonomic setting. However, a reasonable but less than perfect level of identification may be reached – even in a taxonomic context. The time is ripe for selecting barcode regions in plants, and for prudent examination of their utility. Thus, there is no reason for the plant community to hold back the barcoding effort by continued search for the Holy Grail. We must acknowledge that an emerging system will be far from perfect, fraught with problems and work best in a floristic setting.

Evidence for Directional Selection at a Novel Major Histocompatibility Class I Marker in Wild Common Frogs (Rana temporaria) Exposed to a Viral Pathogen (Ranavirus):

Whilst the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) is well characterized in the anuran Xenopus, this region has not previously been studied in another popular model species, the common frog (Rana temporaria). Nor, to date, have there been any studies of MHC in wild amphibian host-pathogen systems. We characterise an MHC class I locus in the common frog, and present primers to amplify both the whole region, and specifically the antigen binding region. As no more than two expressed haplotypes were found in over 400 clones from 66 individuals, it is likely that there is a single class I locus in this species. This finding is consistent with the single class I locus in Xenopus, but contrasts with the multiple loci identified in axolotls, providing evidence that the diversification of MHC class I into multiple loci likely occurred after the Caudata/Anura divergence (approximately 350 million years ago) but before the Ranidae/Pipidae divergence (approximately 230 mya). We use this locus to compare wild populations of common frogs that have been infected with a viral pathogen (Ranavirus) with those that have no history of infection. We demonstrate that certain MHC supertypes are associated with infection status (even after accounting for shared ancestry), and that the diseased populations have more similar supertype frequencies (lower FST) than the uninfected. These patterns were not seen in a suite of putatively neutral microsatellite loci. We interpret this pattern at the MHC locus to indicate that the disease has imposed selection for particular haplotypes, and hence that common frogs may be adapting to the presence of Ranavirus, which currently kills tens of thousands of amphibians in the UK each year.

Does Sleep Play a Role in Memory Consolidation? A Comparative Test:

Sleep is a pervasive characteristic of mammalian species, yet its purpose remains obscure. It is often proposed that ‘sleep is for the brain’, a view that is supported by experimental studies showing that sleep improves cognitive processes such as memory consolidation. Some comparative studies have also reported that mammalian sleep durations are higher among more encephalized species. However, no study has assessed the relationship between sleep and the brain structures that are implicated in specific cognitive processes across species. The hippocampus, neocortex and amygdala are important for memory consolidation and learning and are also in a highly actived state during sleep. We therefore investigated the evolutionary relationship between mammalian sleep and the size of these brain structures using phylogenetic comparative methods. We found that evolutionary increases in the size of the amygdala are associated with corresponding increases in NREM sleep durations. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that NREM sleep is functionally linked with specializations of the amygdala, including perhaps memory processing.

Decision-Making in Research Tasks with Sequential Testing:

In a recent controversial essay, published by JPA Ioannidis in PLoS Medicine, it has been argued that in some research fields, most of the published findings are false. Based on theoretical reasoning it can be shown that small effect sizes, error-prone tests, low priors of the tested hypotheses and biases in the evaluation and publication of research findings increase the fraction of false positives. These findings raise concerns about the reliability of research. However, they are based on a very simple scenario of scientific research, where single tests are used to evaluate independent hypotheses. In this study, we present computer simulations and experimental approaches for analyzing more realistic scenarios. In these scenarios, research tasks are solved sequentially, i.e. subsequent tests can be chosen depending on previous results. We investigate simple sequential testing and scenarios where only a selected subset of results can be published and used for future rounds of test choice. Results from computer simulations indicate that for the tasks analyzed in this study, the fraction of false among the positive findings declines over several rounds of testing if the most informative tests are performed. Our experiments show that human subjects frequently perform the most informative tests, leading to a decline of false positives as expected from the simulations. For the research tasks studied here, findings tend to become more reliable over time. We also find that the performance in those experimental settings where not all performed tests could be published turned out to be surprisingly inefficient. Our results may help optimize existing procedures used in the practice of scientific research and provide guidance for the development of novel forms of scholarly communication.

Biogeography of Photosynthetic Light-Harvesting Genes in Marine Phytoplankton:

Photosynthetic light-harvesting proteins are the mechanism by which energy enters the marine ecosystem. The dominant prokaryotic photoautotrophs are the cyanobacterial genera Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus that are defined by two distinct light-harvesting systems, chlorophyll-bound protein complexes or phycobilin-bound protein complexes, respectively. Here, we use the Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) Project as a unique and powerful tool to analyze the environmental diversity of photosynthetic light-harvesting genes in relation to available metadata including geographical location and physical and chemical environmental parameters. All light-harvesting gene fragments and their metadata were obtained from the GOS database, aligned using ClustalX and classified phylogenetically. Each sequence has a name indicative of its geographic location; subsequent biogeographical analysis was performed by correlating light-harvesting gene budgets for each GOS station with surface chlorophyll concentration. Using the GOS data, we have mapped the biogeography of light-harvesting genes in marine cyanobacteria on ocean-basin scales and show that an environmental gradient exists in which chlorophyll concentration is correlated to diversity of light-harvesting systems. Three functionally distinct types of light-harvesting genes are defined: (1) the phycobilisome (PBS) genes of Synechococcus; (2) the pcb genes of Prochlorococcus; and (3) the iron-stress-induced (isiA) genes present in some marine Synechococcus. At low chlorophyll concentrations, where nutrients are limited, the Pcb-type light-harvesting system shows greater genetic diversity; whereas at high chlorophyll concentrations, where nutrients are abundant, the PBS-type light-harvesting system shows higher genetic diversity. We interpret this as an environmental selection of specific photosynthetic strategy. Importantly, the unique light-harvesting system isiA is found in the iron-limited, high-nutrient low-chlorophyll region of the equatorial Pacific. This observation demonstrates the ecological importance of isiA genes in enabling marine Synechococcus to acclimate to iron limitation and suggests that the presence of this gene can be a natural biomarker for iron limitation in oceanic environments.

A Rice Gene of De Novo Origin Negatively Regulates Pathogen-Induced Defense Response:

How defense genes originated with the evolution of their specific pathogen-responsive traits remains an important problem. It is generally known that a form of duplication can generate new genes, suggesting that a new gene usually evolves from an ancestral gene. However, we show that a new defense gene in plants may evolve by de novo origination, resulting in sophisticated disease-resistant functions in rice. Analyses of gene evolution showed that this new gene, OsDR10, had homologs only in the closest relative, Leersia genus, but not other subfamilies of the grass family; therefore, it is a rice tribe-specific gene that may have originated de novo in the tribe. We further show that this gene may evolve a highly conservative rice-specific function that contributes to the regulation difference between rice and other plant species in response to pathogen infections. Biologic analyses including gene silencing, pathologic analysis, and mutant characterization by transformation showed that the OsDR10-suppressed plants enhanced resistance to a broad spectrum of Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae strains, which cause bacterial blight disease. This enhanced disease resistance was accompanied by increased accumulation of endogenous salicylic acid (SA) and suppressed accumulation of endogenous jasmonic acid (JA) as well as modified expression of a subset of defense-responsive genes functioning both upstream and downstream of SA and JA. These data and analyses provide fresh insights into the new biologic and evolutionary processes of a de novo gene recruited rapidly.