A Blog Around The Clock

New and Exciting in PLoS this week

Friday morning, let’s see what is new 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:

Live Coverage of Scientific Conferences Using Web Technologies:

Conferences are important hubs of scientific communication, facilitating networking in ways that traditional methods of remote information dissemination cannot match. Internet-based communication is also central to today’s science, increasing the accessibility of information and the speed of its dissemination at symposia and conferences. Before live blogging became popular, the best sources of conference coverage were news articles, proceedings, and conversations with attendees. Scientists typically passed relevant information to their local area of influence, while journalists discovered and wrote about connections between presentations, people, and ideas. Now new methods of remote, Web-based communication are augmenting the importance and appeal of conferences by lowering the barrier to scientific communication, as well as increasing the speed with which information is distributed.

Honeybee Colony Thermoregulation – Regulatory Mechanisms and Contribution of Individuals in Dependence on Age, Location and Thermal Stress:

Honeybee larvae and pupae are extremely stenothermic, i.e. they strongly depend on accurate regulation of brood nest temperature for proper development (33-36°C). Here we study the mechanisms of social thermoregulation of honeybee colonies under changing environmental temperatures concerning the contribution of individuals to colony temperature homeostasis. Beside migration activity within the nest, the main active process is “endothermy on demand” of adults. An increase of cold stress (cooling of the colony) increases the intensity of heat production with thoracic flight muscles and the number of endothermic individuals, especially in the brood nest. As endothermy means hard work for bees, this eases much burden of nestmates which can stay ectothermic. Concerning the active reaction to cold stress by endothermy, age polyethism is reduced to only two physiologically predetermined task divisions, 0 to ~2 days and older. Endothermic heat production is the job of bees older than about two days. They are all similarly engaged in active heat production both in intensity and frequency. Their active heat production has an important reinforcement effect on passive heat production of the many ectothermic bees and of the brood. Ectothermy is most frequent in young bees (<~2 days) both outside and inside of brood nest cells. We suggest young bees visit warm brood nest cells not only to clean them but also to speed up flight muscle development for proper endothermy and foraging later in their life. Young bees inside brood nest cells mostly receive heat from the surrounding cell wall during cold stress, whereas older bees predominantly transfer heat from the thorax to the cell wall. Endothermic bees regulate brood comb temperature more accurately than local air temperature. They apply the heat as close to the brood as possible: workers heating cells from within have a higher probability of endothermy than those on the comb surface. The findings show that thermal homeostasis of honeybee colonies is achieved by a combination of active and passive processes. The differential individual endothermic and behavioral reactions sum up to an integrated action of the honeybee colony as a superorganism.

Killing a Killer: What Next for Smallpox?:

Now that the 20th century has passed into the domain of history books, we can retrospectively begin to assess the relative contributions that the many advances in the realm of infectious disease have actually made to public health in general. At the top of this virtuous list will surely be the discovery of antibiotics in the 1930s and the use of vaccination to eradicate smallpox as an extant human disease in the 1960s and 1970s. As clearly pointed out in a recent book by D. A. Henderson, one of the leaders of the global smallpox eradication program, this task of ridding Homo sapiens from the curse of this ancestral disease was neither easy nor without controversy [1]. In fact, the history of the many consequences of smallpox on humankind reads like a long litany of human misery and calamitous events, but is juxtaposed with the more noble accomplishments that began with the discovery of vaccination by Jenner in 1798 and culminated with the World Health Organization (WHO) certifying the world free of smallpox in 1980 [2]. With this singular accomplishment, as many as 60-100 million individuals who would have been predicted to die of smallpox have been spared from a truly gruesome death. Nevertheless, as is intimated by the timeline in Table 1, which summarizes the history of smallpox and the orthopoxvirus that caused the disease (variola virus), the narrative of smallpox did not stop with its eradication as a pandemic human disease. Instead, we find ourselves still wrestling with an issue that intermingles public health policy, philosophy, national security, and bioterrorism, and affects our perceptions of research ethics with extreme pathogens in general. It boils down to a not-so-simple question: What exactly should the Victor do with the Vanquished?

Impact of Herbivore Identity on Algal Succession and Coral Growth on a Caribbean Reef:

Herbivory is an important top-down force on coral reefs that regulates macroalgal abundance, mediates competitive interactions between macroalgae and corals, and provides resilience following disturbances such as hurricanes and coral bleaching. However, reductions in herbivore diversity and abundance via disease or over-fishing may harm corals directly and may indirectly increase coral susceptibility to other disturbances. In two experiments over two years, we enclosed equivalent densities and masses of either single-species or mixed-species of herbivorous fishes in replicate, 4 m2 cages at a depth of 17 m on a reef in the Florida Keys, USA to evaluate the effects of herbivore identity and species richness on colonization and development of macroalgal communities and the cascading effects of algae on coral growth. In Year 1, we used the redband parrotfish (Sparisoma aurofrenatum) and the ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus); in Year 2, we used the redband parrotfish and the princess parrotfish (Scarus taeniopterus). On new substrates, rapid grazing by ocean surgeonfish and princess parrotfish kept communities in an early successional stage dominated by short, filamentous algae and crustose coralline algae that did not suppress coral growth. In contrast, feeding by redband parrotfish allowed an accumulation of tall filaments and later successional macroalgae that suppressed coral growth. These patterns contrast with patterns from established communities not undergoing primary succession; on established substrates redband parrotfish significantly reduced upright macroalgal cover while ocean surgeonfish and princess parrotfish allowed significant increases in late successional macroalgae. This study further highlights the importance of biodiversity in affecting ecosystem function in that different species of herbivorous fishes had very different impacts on reef communities depending on the developmental stage of the community. The species-specific effects of herbivorous fishes suggest that a species-rich herbivore fauna can be critical in providing the resilience that reefs need for recovery from common disturbances such as coral bleaching and storm damage.

Structure Learning in a Sensorimotor Association Task:

Learning is often understood as an organism’s gradual acquisition of the association between a given sensory stimulus and the correct motor response. Mathematically, this corresponds to regressing a mapping between the set of observations and the set of actions. Recently, however, it has been shown both in cognitive and motor neuroscience that humans are not only able to learn particular stimulus-response mappings, but are also able to extract abstract structural invariants that facilitate generalization to novel tasks. Here we show how such structure learning can enhance facilitation in a sensorimotor association task performed by human subjects. Using regression and reinforcement learning models we show that the observed facilitation cannot be explained by these basic models of learning stimulus-response associations. We show, however, that the observed data can be explained by a hierarchical Bayesian model that performs structure learning. In line with previous results from cognitive tasks, this suggests that hierarchical Bayesian inference might provide a common framework to explain both the learning of specific stimulus-response associations and the learning of abstract structures that are shared by different task environments.