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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 32 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:

Common Avian Infection Plagued the Tyrant Dinosaurs:

Tyrannosaurus rex and other tyrannosaurid fossils often display multiple, smooth-edged full-thickness erosive lesions on the mandible, either unilaterally or bilaterally. The cause of these lesions in the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen FMNH PR2081 (known informally by the name ‘Sue’) has previously been attributed to actinomycosis, a bacterial bone infection, or bite wounds from other tyrannosaurids. We conducted an extensive survey of tyrannosaurid specimens and identified ten individuals with full-thickness erosive lesions. These lesions were described, measured and photographed for comparison with one another. We also conducted an extensive survey of related archosaurs for similar lesions. We show here that these lesions are consistent with those caused by an avian parasitic infection called trichomonosis, which causes similar abnormalities on the mandible of modern birds, in particular raptors. This finding represents the first evidence for the ancient evolutionary origin of an avian transmissible disease in non-avian theropod dinosaurs. It also provides a valuable insight into the palaeobiology of these now extinct animals. Based on the frequency with which these lesions occur, we hypothesize that tyrannosaurids were commonly infected by a Trichomonas gallinae-like protozoan. For tyrannosaurid populations, the only non-avian dinosaur group that show trichomonosis-type lesions, it is likely that the disease became endemic and spread as a result of antagonistic intraspecific behavior, consumption of prey infected by a Trichomonas gallinae-like protozoan and possibly even cannibalism. The severity of trichomonosis-related lesions in specimens such as Tyrannosaurus rex FMNH PR2081 and Tyrannosaurus rex MOR 980, strongly suggests that these animals died as a direct result of this disease, mostly likely through starvation.

Dragon’s Paradise Lost: Palaeobiogeography, Evolution and Extinction of the Largest-Ever Terrestrial Lizards (Varanidae):

The largest living lizard species, Varanus komodoensis Ouwens 1912, is vulnerable to extinction, being restricted to a few isolated islands in eastern Indonesia, between Java and Australia, where it is the dominant terrestrial carnivore. Understanding how large-bodied varanids responded to past environmental change underpins long-term management of V. komodoensis populations. We reconstruct the palaeobiogeography of Neogene giant varanids and identify a new (unnamed) species from the island of Timor. Our data reject the long-held perception that V. komodoensis became a giant because of insular evolution or as a specialist hunter of pygmy Stegodon. Phyletic giantism, coupled with a westward dispersal from mainland Australia, provides the most parsimonious explanation for the palaeodistribution of V. komodoensis and the newly identified species of giant varanid from Timor. Pliocene giant varanid fossils from Australia are morphologically referable to V. komodoensis suggesting an ultimate origin for V. komodoensis on mainland Australia (>3.8 million years ago). Varanus komodoensis body size has remained stable over the last 900,000 years (ka) on Flores, a time marked by major faunal turnovers, extinction of the island’s megafauna, the arrival of early hominids by 880 ka, co-existence with Homo floresiensis, and the arrival of modern humans by 10 ka. Within the last 2000 years their populations have contracted severely. Giant varanids were once a ubiquitous part of Subcontinental Eurasian and Australasian faunas during the Neogene. Extinction played a pivotal role in the reduction of their ranges and diversity throughout the late Quaternary, leaving only V. komodoensis as an isolated long-term survivor. The events over the last two millennia now threaten its future survival.

The Origin and Initial Rise of Pelagic Cephalopods in the Ordovician:

During the Ordovician the global diversity increased dramatically at family, genus and species levels. Partially the diversification is explained by an increased nutrient, and phytoplankton availability in the open water. Cephalopods are among the top predators of todays open oceans. Their Ordovician occurrences, diversity evolution and abundance pattern potentially provides information on the evolution of the pelagic food chain. We reconstructed the cephalopod departure from originally exclusively neritic habitats into the pelagic zone by the compilation of occurrence data in offshore paleoenvironments from the Paleobiology Database, and from own data, by evidence of the functional morphology, and the taphonomy of selected cephalopod faunas. The occurrence data show, that cephalopod associations in offshore depositional settings and black shales are characterized by a specific composition, often dominated by orthocerids and lituitids. The siphuncle and conch form of these cephalopods indicate a dominant lifestyle as pelagic, vertical migrants. The frequency distribution of conch sizes and the pattern of epibionts indicate an autochthonous origin of the majority of orthocerid and lituitid shells. The consistent concentration of these cephalopods in deep subtidal sediments, starting from the middle Tremadocian indicates the occupation of the pelagic zone early in the Early Ordovician and a subsequent diversification which peaked during the Darriwilian. The exploitation of the pelagic realm started synchronously in several independent invertebrate clades during the latest Cambrian to Middle Ordovician. The initial rise and diversification of pelagic cephalopods during the Early and Middle Ordovician indicates the establishment of a pelagic food chain sustainable enough for the development of a diverse fauna of large predators. The earliest pelagic cephalopods were slowly swimming vertical migrants. The appearance and early diversification of pelagic cephalopods is interpreted as a consequence of the increased food availability in the open water since the latest Cambrian.

The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide:

The observation that suicides sometimes cluster in space and/or time has led to suggestions that these clusters are caused by the social learning of suicide-related behaviours, or “copycat suicides”. Point clusters are clusters of suicides localised in both time and space, and have been attributed to direct social learning from nearby individuals. Mass clusters are clusters of suicides localised in time but not space, and have been attributed to the dissemination of information concerning celebrity suicides via the mass media. Here, agent-based simulations, in combination with scan statistic methods for detecting clusters of rare events, were used to clarify the social learning processes underlying point and mass clusters. It was found that social learning between neighbouring agents did generate point clusters as predicted, although this effect was partially mimicked by homophily (individuals preferentially assorting with similar others). The one-to-many transmission dynamics characterised by the mass media were shown to generate mass clusters, but only where social learning was weak, perhaps due to prestige bias (only copying prestigious celebrities) and similarity bias (only copying similar models) acting to reduce the subset of available models. These findings can help to clarify and formalise existing hypotheses and to guide future empirical work relating to real-life copycat suicides.

Identification of Copy Number Variants Defining Genomic Differences among Major Human Groups:

Understanding the genetic contribution to phenotype variation of human groups is necessary to elucidate differences in disease predisposition and response to pharmaceutical treatments in different human populations. We have investigated the genome-wide profile of structural variation on pooled samples from the three populations studied in the HapMap project by comparative genome hybridization (CGH) in different array platforms. We have identified and experimentally validated 33 genomic loci that show significant copy number differences from one population to the other. Interestingly, we found an enrichment of genes related to environment adaptation (immune response, lipid metabolism and extracellular space) within these regions and the study of expression data revealed that more than half of the copy number variants (CNVs) translate into gene-expression differences among populations, suggesting that they could have functional consequences. In addition, the identification of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that are in linkage disequilibrium with the copy number alleles allowed us to detect evidences of population differentiation and recent selection at the nucleotide variation level. Overall, our results provide a comprehensive view of relevant copy number changes that might play a role in phenotypic differences among major human populations, and generate a list of interesting candidates for future studies.


Physico-Chemical Evaluation of Rationally Designed Melanins as Novel Nature-Inspired Radioprotectors:

Melanin, a high-molecular weight pigment that is ubiquitous in nature, protects melanized microorganisms against high doses of ionizing radiation. However, the physics of melanin interaction with ionizing radiation is unknown. We rationally designed melanins from either 5-S-cysteinyl-DOPA, L-cysteine/L-DOPA, or L-DOPA with diverse structures as shown by elemental analysis and HPLC. Sulfur-containing melanins had higher predicted attenuation coefficients than non-sulfur-containing melanins. All synthetic melanins displayed strong electron paramagnetic resonance (2.14·1018, 7.09·1018, and 9.05·1017 spins/g, respectively), with sulfur-containing melanins demonstrating more complex spectra and higher numbers of stable free radicals. There was no change in the quality or quantity of the stable free radicals after high-dose (30,000 cGy), high-energy (137Cs, 661.6 keV) irradiation, indicating a high degree of radical stability as well as a robust resistance to the ionizing effects of gamma irradiation. The rationally designed melanins protected mammalian cells against ionizing radiation of different energies. We propose that due to melanin’s numerous aromatic oligomers containing multiple π-electron system, a generated Compton recoil electron gradually loses energy while passing through the pigment, until its energy is sufficiently low that it can be trapped by stable free radicals present in the pigment. Controlled dissipation of high-energy recoil electrons by melanin prevents secondary ionizations and the generation of damaging free radical species.

Olfactory Proteins Mediating Chemical Communication in the Navel Orangeworm Moth, Amyelois transitella:

The navel orangeworm, Amyelois transitella Walker (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae), is the most serious insect pest of almonds and pistachios in California for which environmentally friendly alternative methods of control — like pheromone-based approaches — are highly desirable. Some constituents of the sex pheromone are unstable and could be replaced with parapheromones, which may be designed on the basis of molecular interaction of pheromones and pheromone-detecting olfactory proteins. By analyzing extracts from olfactory and non-olfactory tissues, we identified putative olfactory proteins, obtained their N-terminal amino acid sequences by Edman degradation, and used degenerate primers to clone the corresponding cDNAs by SMART RACE. Additionally, we used degenerate primers based on conserved sequences of known proteins to fish out other candidate olfactory genes. We expressed the gene encoding a newly identified pheromone-binding protein, which was analyzed by circular dichroism, fluorescence, and nuclear magnetic resonance, and used in a binding assay to assess affinity to pheromone components. We have cloned nine cDNAs encoding olfactory proteins from the navel orangeworm, including two pheromone-binding proteins, two general odorant-binding proteins, one chemosensory protein, one glutathione S-transferase, one antennal binding protein X, one sensory neuron membrane protein, and one odorant receptor. Of these, AtraPBP1 is highly enriched in male antennae. Fluorescence, CD and NMR studies suggest a dramatic pH-dependent conformational change, with high affinity to pheromone constituents at neutral pH and no binding at low pH.