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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

You really need to go to a PLoS ONE paper and take a look – we have done some nifty home remodeling ;-)

What is really new and important is that there are all sorts of article-level metrics on each paper. The same goes for all the other TOPAZ-based PLoS journals (i.e., all but PLoS Biology – you may have noticed that PLoS Medicine has migrated onto TOPAZ as well).

Mark Patterson explains what and why. Pete Binfield gives you a new house tour. And Richard Cave gives the information for those interested in the technical side of the changes.

Please take a look and give us feedback at any of those three links above, or here and here.

There are 26 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. Due to the upgrade, trackbacks are temporarily invisible. But send them anyway – the system is saving them and will make them visible soon.

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:

Ants Can Learn to Forage on One-Way Trails:

The trails formed by many ant species between nest and food source are two-way roads on which outgoing and returning workers meet and touch each other all along. The way to get back home, after grasping a food load, is to take the same route on which they have arrived from the nest. In many species such trails are chemically marked by pheromones providing orientation cues for the ants to find their way. Other species rely on their vision and use landmarks as cues. We have developed a method to stop foraging ants from shuttling on two-way trails. The only way to forage is to take two separate roads, as they cannot go back on their steps after arriving at the food or at the nest. The condition qualifies as a problem because all their orientation cues – chemical, visual or any other – are disrupted, as all of them cannot but lead the ants back to the route on which they arrived. We have found that workers of the leaf-cutting ant Atta sexdens rubropilosa can solve the problem. They could not only find the alternative way, but also used the unidirectional traffic system to forage effectively. We suggest that their ability is an evolutionary consequence of the need to deal with environmental irregularities that cannot be negotiated by means of excessively stereotyped behavior, and that it is but an example of a widespread phenomenon. We also suggest that our method can be adapted to other species, invertebrate and vertebrate, in the study of orientation, memory, perception, learning and communication.

Local Individual Preferences for Nest Materials in a Passerine Bird:

Variation in the behavioural repertoire of animals is acquired by learning in a range of animal species. In nest-building birds, the assemblage of nest materials in an appropriate structure is often typical of a bird genus or species. Yet plasticity in the selection of nest materials may be beneficial because the nature and abundance of nest materials vary across habitats. Such plasticity can be learned, either individually or socially. In Corsican populations of blue tits Cyanistes caeruleus, females regularly add in their nests fragments of several species of aromatic plants during the whole breeding period. The selected plants represent a small fraction of the species present in the environment and have positive effects on nestlings. We investigated spatiotemporal variations of this behaviour to test whether the aromatic plant species composition in nests depends on 1) plant availability in territories, 2) female experience or 3) female identity. Our results indicate that territory plays a very marginal role in the aromatic plant species composition of nests. Female experience is not related to a change in nest plant composition. Actually, this composition clearly depends on female identity, i.e. results from individual preferences which, furthermore, are repeatable both within and across years. A puzzling fact is the strong difference in plant species composition of nests across distinct study plots. This study demonstrates that plant species composition of nests results from individual preferences that are homogeneous within study plots. We propose several hypotheses to interpret this pattern of spatial variation before discussing them in the light of preliminary results. As a conclusion, we cannot exclude the possibility of social transmission of individual preferences for aromatic plants. This is an exciting perspective for further work in birds, where nest construction behaviour has classically been considered as a stereotypic behaviour.

Cellular Communication through Light:

Information transfer is a fundamental of life. A few studies have reported that cells use photons (from an endogenous source) as information carriers. This study finds that cells can have an influence on other cells even when separated with a glass barrier, thereby disabling molecule diffusion through the cell-containing medium. As there is still very little known about the potential of photons for intercellular communication this study is designed to test for non-molecule-based triggering of two fundamental properties of life: cell division and energy uptake. The study was performed with a cellular organism, the ciliate Paramecium caudatum. Mutual exposure of cell populations occurred under conditions of darkness and separation with cuvettes (vials) allowing photon but not molecule transfer. The cell populations were separated either with glass allowing photon transmission from 340 nm to longer waves, or quartz being transmittable from 150 nm, i.e. from UV-light to longer waves. Even through glass, the cells affected cell division and energy uptake in neighboring cell populations. Depending on the cuvette material and the number of cells involved, these effects were positive or negative. Also, while paired populations with lower growth rates grew uncorrelated, growth of the better growing populations was correlated. As there were significant differences when separating the populations with glass or quartz, it is suggested that the cell populations use two (or more) frequencies for cellular information transfer, which influences at least energy uptake, cell division rate and growth correlation. Altogether the study strongly supports a cellular communication system, which is different from a molecule-receptor-based system and hints that photon-triggering is a fine tuning principle in cell chemistry.

Skin Blood Perfusion and Oxygenation Colour Affect Perceived Human Health:

Skin blood perfusion and oxygenation depends upon cardiovascular, hormonal and circulatory health in humans and provides socio-sexual signals of underlying physiology, dominance and reproductive status in some primates. We allowed participants to manipulate colour calibrated facial photographs along empirically-measured oxygenated and deoxygenated blood colour axes both separately and simultaneously, to optimise healthy appearance. Participants increased skin blood colour, particularly oxygenated, above basal levels to optimise healthy appearance. We show, therefore, that skin blood perfusion and oxygenation influence perceived health in a way that may be important to mate choice.

Non-Destructive Sampling of Ancient Insect DNA:

A major challenge for ancient DNA (aDNA) studies on insect remains is that sampling procedures involve at least partial destruction of the specimens. A recent extraction protocol reveals the possibility of obtaining DNA from past insect remains without causing visual morphological damage. We test the applicability of this protocol on historic museum beetle specimens dating back to AD 1820 and on ancient beetle chitin remains from permafrost (permanently frozen soil) dating back more than 47,000 years. Finally, we test the possibility of obtaining ancient insect DNA directly from non-frozen sediments deposited 3280-1800 years ago – an alternative approach that also does not involve destruction of valuable material. The success of the methodological approaches are tested by PCR and sequencing of COI and 16S mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) fragments of 77-204 base pairs (-bp) in size using species-specific and general insect primers. The applied non-destructive DNA extraction method shows promising potential on insect museum specimens of historical age as far back as AD 1820, but less so on the ancient permafrost-preserved insect fossil remains tested, where DNA was obtained from samples up to ca. 26,000 years old. The non-frozen sediment DNA approach appears to have great potential for recording the former presence of insect taxa not normally preserved as macrofossils and opens new frontiers in research on ancient biodiversity.

Spatio-Temporal Transmission Patterns of Black-Band Disease in a Coral Community:

Transmission mechanisms of black-band disease (BBD) in coral reefs are poorly understood, although this disease is considered to be one of the most widespread and destructive coral infectious diseases. The major objective of this study was to assess transmission mechanisms of BBD in the field based on the spatio-temporal patterns of the disease. 3,175 susceptible and infected corals were mapped over an area of 10×10 m in Eilat (northern Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea) and the distribution of the disease was examined monthly throughout almost two full disease cycles (June 2006-December 2007). Spatial and spatio-temporal analyses were applied to infer the transmission pattern of the disease and to calculate key epidemiological parameters such as (basic reproduction number). We show that the prevalence of the disease is strongly associated with high water temperature. When water temperatures rise and disease prevalence increases, infected corals exhibit aggregated distributions on small spatial scales of up to 1.9 m. Additionally, newly-infected corals clearly appear in proximity to existing infected corals and in a few cases in direct contact with them. We also present and test a model of water-borne infection, indicating that the likelihood of a susceptible coral becoming infected is defined by its spatial location and by the relative spatial distribution of nearby infected corals found in the site. Our results provide evidence that local transmission, but not necessarily by direct contact, is likely to be an important factor in the spread of the disease over the tested spatial scale. In the absence of potential disease vectors with limited mobility (e.g., snails, fireworms) in the studied site, water-borne infection is likely to be a significant transmission mechanism of BBD. Our suggested model of water-borne transmission supports this hypothesis. The spatio-temporal analysis also points out that infected corals surviving a disease season appear to play a major role in the re-introduction of the disease to the coral community in the following season.