A Blog Around The Clock

New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 24 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, Mendeley, 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:

Ancient Skeletal Evidence for Leprosy in India (2000 B.C.):

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae that affects almost 250,000 people worldwide. The timing of first infection, geographic origin, and pattern of transmission of the disease are still under investigation. Comparative genomics research has suggested M. leprae evolved either in East Africa or South Asia during the Late Pleistocene before spreading to Europe and the rest of the World. The earliest widely accepted evidence for leprosy is in Asian texts dated to 600 B.C. We report an analysis of pathological conditions in skeletal remains from the second millennium B.C. in India. A middle aged adult male skeleton demonstrates pathological changes in the rhinomaxillary region, degenerative joint disease, infectious involvement of the tibia (periostitis), and injury to the peripheral skeleton. The presence and patterning of lesions was subject to a process of differential diagnosis for leprosy including treponemal disease, leishmaniasis, tuberculosis, osteomyelitis, and non-specific infection. Results indicate that lepromatous leprosy was present in India by 2000 B.C. This evidence represents the oldest documented skeletal evidence for the disease. Our results indicate that Vedic burial traditions in cases of leprosy were present in northwest India prior to the first millennium B.C. Our results also support translations of early Vedic scriptures as the first textual reference to leprosy. The presence of leprosy in skeletal material dated to the post-urban phase of the Indus Age suggests that if M. leprae evolved in Africa, the disease migrated to India before the Late Holocene, possibly during the third millennium B.C. at a time when there was substantial interaction among the Indus Civilization, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. This evidence should be impetus to look for additional skeletal and molecular evidence of leprosy in India and Africa to confirm the African origin of the disease.

Uncinate Process Length in Birds Scales with Resting Metabolic Rate:

A fundamental function of the respiratory system is the supply of oxygen to meet metabolic demand. Morphological constraints on the supply of oxygen, such as the structure of the lung, have previously been studied in birds. Recent research has shown that uncinate processes (UP) are important respiratory structures in birds, facilitating inspiratory and expiratory movements of the ribs and sternum. Uncinate process length (UPL) is important for determining the mechanical advantage for these respiratory movements. Here we report on the relationship between UPL, body size, metabolic demand and locomotor specialisation in birds. UPL was found to scale isometrically with body mass. Process length is greatest in specialist diving birds, shortest in walking birds and intermediate length in all others relative to body size. Examination of the interaction between the length of the UP and metabolic demand indicated that, relative to body size, species with high metabolic rates have corresponding elongated UP. We propose that elongated UP confer an advantage on the supply of oxygen, perhaps by improving the mechanical advantage and reducing the energetic cost of movements of the ribs and sternum.

‘When Birds of a Feather Flock Together': Synesthetic Correspondences Modulate Audiovisual Integration in Non-Synesthetes:

Synesthesia is a condition in which the stimulation of one sense elicits an additional experience, often in a different (i.e., unstimulated) sense. Although only a small proportion of the population is synesthetic, there is growing evidence to suggest that neurocognitively-normal individuals also experience some form of synesthetic association between the stimuli presented to different sensory modalities (i.e., between auditory pitch and visual size, where lower frequency tones are associated with large objects and higher frequency tones with small objects). While previous research has highlighted crossmodal interactions between synesthetically corresponding dimensions, the possible role of synesthetic associations in multisensory integration has not been considered previously. Here we investigate the effects of synesthetic associations by presenting pairs of asynchronous or spatially discrepant visual and auditory stimuli that were either synesthetically matched or mismatched. In a series of three psychophysical experiments, participants reported the relative temporal order of presentation or the relative spatial locations of the two stimuli. The reliability of non-synesthetic participants’ estimates of both audiovisual temporal asynchrony and spatial discrepancy were lower for pairs of synesthetically matched as compared to synesthetically mismatched audiovisual stimuli. Recent studies of multisensory integration have shown that the reduced reliability of perceptual estimates regarding intersensory conflicts constitutes the marker of a stronger coupling between the unisensory signals. Our results therefore indicate a stronger coupling of synesthetically matched vs. mismatched stimuli and provide the first psychophysical evidence that synesthetic congruency can promote multisensory integration. Synesthetic crossmodal correspondences therefore appear to play a crucial (if unacknowledged) role in the multisensory integration of auditory and visual information.

Shellfish Face Uncertain Future in High CO2 World: Influence of Acidification on Oyster Larvae Calcification and Growth in Estuaries:

Human activities have increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide by 36% during the past 200 years. One third of all anthropogenic CO2 has been absorbed by the oceans, reducing pH by about 0.1 of a unit and significantly altering their carbonate chemistry. There is widespread concern that these changes are altering marine habitats severely, but little or no attention has been given to the biota of estuarine and coastal settings, ecosystems that are less pH buffered because of naturally reduced alkalinity. To address CO2-induced changes to estuarine calcification, veliger larvae of two oyster species, the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), and the Suminoe oyster (Crassostrea ariakensis) were grown in estuarine water under four pCO2 regimes, 280, 380, 560 and 800 µatm, to simulate atmospheric conditions in the pre-industrial era, present, and projected future concentrations in 50 and 100 years respectively. CO2 manipulations were made using an automated negative feedback control system that allowed continuous and precise control over the pCO2 in experimental aquaria. Larval growth was measured using image analysis, and calcification was measured by chemical analysis of calcium in their shells. C. virginica experienced a 16% decrease in shell area and a 42% reduction in calcium content when pre-industrial and end of 21st century pCO2 treatments were compared. C. ariakensis showed no change to either growth or calcification. Both species demonstrated net calcification and growth, even when aragonite was undersaturated, a result that runs counter to previous expectations for invertebrate larvae that produce aragonite shells. Our results suggest that temperate estuarine and coastal ecosystems are vulnerable to the expected changes in water chemistry due to elevated atmospheric CO2 and that biological responses to acidification, especially calcifying biota, will be species-specific and therefore much more variable and complex than reported previously.

Rapid Recovery of Damaged Ecosystems:

Recent reports on the state of the global environment provide evidence that humankind is inflicting great damage to the very ecosystems that support human livelihoods. The reports further predict that ecosystems will take centuries to recover from damages if they recover at all. Accordingly, there is despair that we are passing on a legacy of irreparable damage to future generations which is entirely inconsistent with principles of sustainability. We tested the prediction of irreparable harm using a synthesis of recovery times compiled from 240 independent studies reported in the scientific literature. We provide startling evidence that most ecosystems globally can, given human will, recover from very major perturbations on timescales of decades to half-centuries. Accordingly, we find much hope that humankind can transition to more sustainable use of ecosystems.

Intense Habitat-Specific Fisheries-Induced Selection at the Molecular Pan I Locus Predicts Imminent Collapse of a Major Cod Fishery:

Predation is a powerful agent in the ecology and evolution of predator and prey. Prey may select multiple habitats whereby different genotypes prefer different habitats. If the predator is also habitat-specific the prey may evolve different habitat occupancy. Drastic changes can occur in the relation of the predator to the evolved prey. Fisheries exert powerful predation and can be a potent evolutionary force. Fisheries-induced selection can lead to phenotypic changes that influence the collapse and recovery of the fishery. However, heritability of the phenotypic traits involved and selection intensities are low suggesting that fisheries-induced evolution occurs at moderate rates at decadal time scales. The Pantophysin I (Pan I) locus in Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), representing an ancient balanced polymorphism predating the split of cod and its sister species, is under an unusual mix of balancing and directional selection including current selective sweeps. Here we show that Pan I alleles are highly correlated with depth with a gradient of 0.44% allele frequency change per meter. AA fish are shallow-water and BB deep-water adapted in accordance with behavioral studies using data storage tags showing habitat selection by Pan I genotype. AB fish are somewhat intermediate although closer to AA. Furthermore, using a sampling design covering space and time we detect intense habitat-specific fisheries-induced selection against the shallow-water adapted fish with an average 8% allele frequency change per year within year class. Genotypic fitness estimates (0.08, 0.27, 1.00 of AA, AB, and BB respectively) predict rapid disappearance of shallow-water adapted fish. Ecological and evolutionary time scales, therefore, are congruent. We hypothesize a potential collapse of the fishery. We find that probabilistic maturation reaction norms for Atlantic cod at Iceland show declining length and age at maturing comparable to changes that preceded the collapse of northern cod at Newfoundland, further supporting the hypothesis. We speculate that immediate establishment of large no-take reserves may help avert collapse.

Using Phylogenetic, Functional and Trait Diversity to Understand Patterns of Plant Community Productivity:

Two decades of research showing that increasing plant diversity results in greater community productivity has been predicated on greater functional diversity allowing access to more of the total available resources. Thus, understanding phenotypic attributes that allow species to partition resources is fundamentally important to explaining diversity-productivity relationships. Here we use data from a long-term experiment (Cedar Creek, MN) and compare the extent to which productivity is explained by seven types of community metrics of functional variation: 1) species richness, 2) variation in 10 individual traits, 3) functional group richness, 4) a distance-based measure of functional diversity, 5) a hierarchical multivariate clustering method, 6) a nonmetric multidimensional scaling approach, and 7) a phylogenetic diversity measure, summing phylogenetic branch lengths connecting community members together and may be a surrogate for ecological differences. Although most of these diversity measures provided significant explanations of variation in productivity, the presence of a nitrogen fixer and phylogenetic diversity were the two best explanatory variables. Further, a statistical model that included the presence of a nitrogen fixer, seed weight and phylogenetic diversity was a better explanation of community productivity than other models. Evolutionary relationships among species appear to explain patterns of grassland productivity. Further, these results reveal that functional differences among species involve a complex suite of traits and that perhaps phylogenetic relationships provide a better measure of the diversity among species that contributes to productivity than individual or small groups of traits.

Twelve Years’ Experience with Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs in Canada: A Cautionary Tale:

Direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of prescription drugs is illegal in Canada as a health protection measure, but is permitted in the United States. However, in 2000, Canadian policy was changed to allow ‘reminder’ advertising of prescription drugs. This is a form of advertising that states the brand name without health claims. ‘Reminder’ advertising is prohibited in the US for drugs that have ‘black box’ warnings of serious risks. This study examines spending on DTCA in Canada from 1995 to 2006, 12 years spanning this policy shift. We ask how annual per capita spending compares to that in the US, and whether drugs with Canadian or US regulatory safety warnings are advertised to the Canadian public in reminder advertising. Prescription drug advertising spending data were extracted from a data set on health sector spending in Canada obtained from a market research company, TNS Media Inc. Spending was adjusted for inflation and compared with US spending. Inflation-adjusted spending on branded DTCA in Canada grew from under CAD$2 million per year before 1999 to over $22 million in 2006. The major growth was in broadcast advertising, accounting for 83% of spending in 2006. US annual per capita spending was on average 24 times Canadian levels. Celebrex (celecoxib), which has a US black box and was subject to three safety advisories in Canada, was the most heavily advertised drug on Canadian television in 2005 and 2006. Of 8 brands with >$500,000 spending, which together accounted for 59% of branded DTCA in all media, 6 were subject to Canadian safety advisories, and 4 had US black box warnings. Branded ‘reminder’ advertising has grown rapidly in Canada since 2000, mainly due to a growth in television advertising. Although DTCA spending per capita is much lower in Canada than in the US, there is no evidence of safer content or product choice; many heavily-advertised drugs in Canada have been subject to safety advisories. For governments searching for compromise solutions to industry pressure for expanded advertising, Canada’s experience stands as a stark warning.