A Blog Around The Clock

New and Exciting in PLoS this week

Catching up on articles published over the past few days in various PLoS titles…. 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:


Evolution of Adaptive Behaviour in Robots by Means of Darwinian Selection:

Ever since Cicero’s De Natura Deorum ii.34., humans have been intrigued by the origin and mechanisms underlying complexity in nature. Darwin suggested that adaptation and complexity could evolve by natural selection acting successively on numerous small, heritable modifications. But is this enough? Here, we describe selected studies of experimental evolution with robots to illustrate how the process of natural selection can lead to the evolution of complex traits such as adaptive behaviours. Just a few hundred generations of selection are sufficient to allow robots to evolve collision-free movement, homing, sophisticated predator versus prey strategies, coadaptation of brains and bodies, cooperation, and even altruism. In all cases this occurred via selection in robots controlled by a simple neural network, which mutated randomly.

Brain Switches Utilitarian Behavior: Does Gender Make the Difference?:

Decision often implies a utilitarian choice based on personal gain, even at the expense of damaging others. Despite the social implications of utilitarian behavior, its neurophysiological bases remain largely unknown. To assess how the human brain controls utilitarian behavior, we delivered transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) over the ventral prefrontal cortex (VPC) and over the occipital cortex (OC) in 78 healthy subjects. Utilitarian judgment was assessed with the moral judgment task before and after tDCS. At baseline, females provided fewer utilitarian answers than males for personal moral dilemmas (p = .007). In males, VPC-tDCS failed to induce changes and in both genders OC-tDCS left utilitarian judgments unchanged. In females, cathodal VPC-tDCS tended to decrease whereas anodal VPC-tDCS significantly increased utilitarian responses (p = .005). In males and females, reaction times for utilitarian responses significantly decreased after cathodal (p<.001) but not after anodal (p = .735) VPC-tDCS. We conclude that ventral prefrontal tDCS interferes with utilitarian decisions, influencing the evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of each option in both sexes, but does so more strongly in females. Whereas cathodal tDCS alters the time for utilitarian reasoning in both sexes, anodal stimulation interferes more incisively in women, modifying utilitarian reasoning and the possible consequent actions. The gender-related tDCS-induced changes suggest that the VPC differentially controls utilitarian reasoning in females and in males. The gender-specific functional organization of the brain areas involved in utilitarian behavior could be a correlate of the moral and social behavioral differences between the two sexes.

Identifying Thresholds for Ecosystem-Based Management:

One of the greatest obstacles to moving ecosystem-based management (EBM) from concept to practice is the lack of a systematic approach to defining ecosystem-level decision criteria, or reference points that trigger management action. To assist resource managers and policymakers in developing EBM decision criteria, we introduce a quantitative, transferable method for identifying utility thresholds. A utility threshold is the level of human-induced pressure (e.g., pollution) at which small changes produce substantial improvements toward the EBM goal of protecting an ecosystem’s structural (e.g., diversity) and functional (e.g., resilience) attributes. The analytical approach is based on the detection of nonlinearities in relationships between ecosystem attributes and pressures. We illustrate the method with a hypothetical case study of (1) fishing and (2) nearshore habitat pressure using an empirically-validated marine ecosystem model for British Columbia, Canada, and derive numerical threshold values in terms of the density of two empirically-tractable indicator groups, sablefish and jellyfish. We also describe how to incorporate uncertainty into the estimation of utility thresholds and highlight their value in the context of understanding EBM trade-offs. For any policy scenario, an understanding of utility thresholds provides insight into the amount and type of management intervention required to make significant progress toward improved ecosystem structure and function. The approach outlined in this paper can be applied in the context of single or multiple human-induced pressures, to any marine, freshwater, or terrestrial ecosystem, and should facilitate more effective management.

The Effect of Slow Electrical Stimuli to Achieve Learning in Cultured Networks of Rat Cortical Neurons:

Learning, or more generally, plasticity may be studied using cultured networks of rat cortical neurons on multi electrode arrays. Several protocols have been proposed to affect connectivity in such networks. One of these protocols, proposed by Shahaf and Marom, aimed to train the input-output relationship of a selected connection in a network using slow electrical stimuli. Although the results were quite promising, the experiments appeared difficult to repeat and the training protocol did not serve as a basis for wider investigation yet. Here, we repeated their protocol, and compared our ‘learning curves’ to the original results. Although in some experiments the protocol did not seem to work, we found that on average, the protocol showed a significantly improved stimulus response indeed. Furthermore, the protocol always induced functional connectivity changes that were much larger than changes that occurred after a comparable period of random or no stimulation. Finally, our data shows that stimulation at a fixed electrode induces functional connectivity changes of similar magnitude as stimulation through randomly varied sites; both larger than spontaneous connectivity fluctuations. We concluded that slow electrical stimulation always induced functional connectivity changes, although uncontrolled. The magnitude of change increased when we applied the adaptive (closed-loop) training protocol. We hypothesize that networks develop an equilibrium between connectivity and activity. Induced connectivity changes depend on the combination of applied stimulus and initial connectivity. Plain stimuli may drive networks to the nearest equilibrium that accommodates this input, whereas adaptive stimulation may direct the space for exploration and force networks to a new balance, at a larger distance from the initial state.

Science Must Be Responsible to Society, Not to Politics:

Governments rightly request the advice of scientists on matters of fact that affect the public good, from climate change to cancer screening. Scientists must then assess available data and present recommendations based on the data. But what is the role of scientists when politicians see these recommendations as inconvenient?

Viability and Resilience of Languages in Competition:

We study the viability and resilience of languages, using a simple dynamical model of two languages in competition. Assuming that public action can modify the prestige of a language in order to avoid language extinction, we analyze two cases: (i) the prestige can only take two values, (ii) it can take any value but its change at each time step is bounded. In both cases, we determine the viability kernel, that is, the set of states for which there exists an action policy maintaining the coexistence of the two languages, and we define such policies. We also study the resilience of the languages and identify configurations from where the system can return to the viability kernel (finite resilience), or where one of the languages is lead to disappear (zero resilience). Within our current framework, the maintenance of a bilingual society is shown to be possible by introducing the prestige of a language as a control variable.

Favorable Climate Change Response Explains Non-Native Species’ Success in Thoreau’s Woods:

Invasive species have tremendous detrimental ecological and economic impacts. Climate change may exacerbate species invasions across communities if non-native species are better able to respond to climate changes than native species. Recent evidence indicates that species that respond to climate change by adjusting their phenology (i.e., the timing of seasonal activities, such as flowering) have historically increased in abundance. The extent to which non-native species success is similarly linked to a favorable climate change response, however, remains untested. We analyzed a dataset initiated by the conservationist Henry David Thoreau that documents the long-term phenological response of native and non-native plant species over the last 150 years from Concord, Massachusetts (USA). Our results demonstrate that non-native species, and invasive species in particular, have been far better able to respond to recent climate change by adjusting their flowering time. This demonstrates that climate change has likely played, and may continue to play, an important role in facilitating non-native species naturalization and invasion at the community level.

The Global Health System: Lessons for a Stronger Institutional Framework:

The global health system is in a period of rapid transition, with an upsurge of funds and greater political recognition, a broader range of health challenges, many new actors, and the rules, norms and expectations that govern them in flux. The introductory article of this series (Szlezák et al. [1]) laid out some of the many challenges facing the global health system. This system is defined as the constellation of actors (individuals and/or organizations) “whose primary purpose is to promote, restore or maintain health [2]” and “the persistent and connected sets of rules (formal or informal), that prescribe behavioral roles, constrain activity, and shape expectation [3]” among these actors. The second article (Frenk [4]) defined the key attributes of national health systems as a core component of the global system. The third article (Keusch et al. [5]) analyzed the institutional evolution of one of the system’s most important functions–the integration of research, development, and delivery.

Quantifying the Lack of Scientific Interest in Neglected Tropical Diseases:

Since 1990 the World Health Organization uses the disability-adjusted life year (DALY) statistic to quantify the burden of diseases [1]. This indicator quantifies in one measure both the morbidity and the mortality due to disease. Estimating DALYs is intrinsically problematic since for some conditions only limited data are available [1],[2]. For several tropical diseases, especially those affecting people in the poorest countries, it has been argued that DALYs are systematically underestimated [1]-[3]. Because it is considered economically unprofitable, virtually no new drugs are being developed for this group of conditions [4],[5]. Being underestimated and lacking targeted drug development programs, these conditions have been termed neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). The list of infections that are considered to be NTDs varies depending on the author(s). However, they are usually taken to include those listed in Table 1 together with dracunculiasis and Buruli ulcer.

Climate Change and Risk of Leishmaniasis in North America: Predictions from Ecological Niche Models of Vector and Reservoir Species:

We explored the consequences of climate change for the spread of leishmaniasis in North America. We modeled the distribution of two sand fly vector and four rodent reservoir species found in northern México and the southern United States. Models were based on occurrence data and environmental and topographic layers. Successful models were projected to 2020, 2050, and 2080 using an extreme (A2) and a conservative (B2) future climate scenario. We predicted potential range shifts of vector and reservoir species varying assumptions about dispersal ability and capacity to persist in habitats with different degrees of ecological suitability. Even with the most conservative assumptions the distributions of both vector and reservoir species expand northwards, potentially reaching as far as southern Canada in the east. Assuming that at least one vector and one reservoir species must be present for a parasite cycle, the extent of this shift is predicted to be controlled by the availability of suitable habitat for sand fly vector species. Finally, we computed the human population potentially exposed to leishmaniasis because of these range shifts. Even in the most optimistic scenario we found that twice as many individuals could be exposed to leishmaniasis in North America in 2080 compared to today.

Snake Bite in South Asia: A Review:

Snake bite is one of the most neglected public health issues in poor rural communities living in the tropics. Because of serious misreporting, the true worldwide burden of snake bite is not known. South Asia is the world’s most heavily affected region, due to its high population density, widespread agricultural activities, numerous venomous snake species and lack of functional snake bite control programs. Despite increasing knowledge of snake venoms’ composition and mode of action, good understanding of clinical features of envenoming and sufficient production of antivenom by Indian manufacturers, snake bite management remains unsatisfactory in this region. Field diagnostic tests for snake species identification do not exist and treatment mainly relies on the administration of antivenoms that do not cover all of the important venomous snakes of the region. Care-givers need better training and supervision, and national guidelines should be fed by evidence-based data generated by well-designed research studies. Poorly informed rural populations often apply inappropriate first-aid measures and vital time is lost before the victim is transported to a treatment centre, where cost of treatment can constitute an additional hurdle. The deficiency of snake bite management in South Asia is multi-causal and requires joint collaborative efforts from researchers, antivenom manufacturers, policy makers, public health authorities and international funders.

Success in the DREAM3 Signaling Response Challenge Using Simple Weighted-Average Imputation: Lessons for Community-Wide Experiments in Systems Biology:

Our group produced the best predictions overall in the DREAM3 signaling response challenge, being tops by a substantial margin in the cytokine sub-challenge and nearly tied for best in the phosphoprotein sub-challenge. We achieved this success using a simple interpolation strategy. For each combination of a stimulus and inhibitor for which predictions were required, we had noted there were six other datasets using the same stimulus (but different inhibitor treatments) and six other datasets using the same inhibitor (but different stimuli). Therefore, for each treatment combination for which values were to be predicted, we calculated rank correlations for the data that were in common between the treatment combination and each of the 12 related combinations. The data from the 12 related combinations were then used to calculate missing values, weighting the contributions from each experiment based on the rank correlation coefficients. The success of this simple method suggests that the missing data were largely over-determined by similarities in the treatments. We offer some thoughts on the current state and future development of DREAM that are based on our success in this challenge, our success in the earlier DREAM2 transcription factor target challenge, and our experience as the data provider for the gene expression challenge in DREAM3.