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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

Being away at AAAS meeting also meant I did not have much time and opportunity until right now to check what’s new in PLoS ONE yesterday and today. But I checked now, after coming back home. 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:

An Investigation into the Cognition Behind Spontaneous String Pulling in New Caledonian Crows:

The ability of some bird species to pull up meat hung on a string is a famous example of spontaneous animal problem solving. The “insight” hypothesis claims that this complex behaviour is based on cognitive abilities such as mental scenario building and imagination. An operant conditioning account, in contrast, would claim that this spontaneity is due to each action in string pulling being reinforced by the meat moving closer and remaining closer to the bird on the perch. We presented experienced and naïve New Caledonian crows with a novel, visually restricted string-pulling problem that reduced the quality of visual feedback during string pulling. Experienced crows solved this problem with reduced efficiency and increased errors compared to their performance in standard string pulling. Naïve crows either failed or solved the problem by trial and error learning. However, when visual feedback was available via a mirror mounted next to the apparatus, two naïve crows were able to perform at the same level as the experienced group. Our results raise the possibility that spontaneous string pulling in New Caledonian crows may not be based on insight but on operant conditioning mediated by a perceptual-motor feedback cycle.

Allele Interaction – Single Locus Genetics Meets Regulatory Biology:

Since the dawn of genetics, additive and dominant gene action in diploids have been defined by comparison of heterozygote and homozygote phenotypes. However, these definitions provide little insight into the underlying intralocus allelic functional dependency and thus cannot serve directly as a mediator between genetics theory and regulatory biology, a link that is sorely needed. We provide such a link by distinguishing between positive, negative and zero allele interaction at the genotype level. First, these distinctions disclose that a biallelic locus can display 18 qualitatively different allele interaction sign motifs (triplets of +, – and 0). Second, we show that for a single locus, Mendelian dominance is not related to heterozygote allele interaction alone, but is actually a function of the degrees of allele interaction in all the three genotypes. Third, we demonstrate how the allele interaction in each genotype is directly quantifiable in gene regulatory models, and that there is a unique, one-to-one correspondence between the sign of autoregulatory feedback loops and the sign of the allele interactions. The concept of allele interaction refines single locus genetics substantially, and it provides a direct link between classical models of gene action and gene regulatory biology. Together with available empirical data, our results indicate that allele interaction can be exploited experimentally to identify and explain intricate intra- and inter-locus feedback relationships in eukaryotes.

The Correlation between Rates of Cancer and Autism: An Exploratory Ecological Investigation:

Autism is associated with high rates of genomic aberrations, including chromosomal rearrangements and de novo copy-number variations. These observations are reminiscent of cancer, a disease where genomic rearrangements also play a role. We undertook a correlative epidemiological study to explore the possibility that shared risk factors might exist for autism and specific types of cancer. To determine if significant correlations exist between the prevalence of autism and the incidence of cancer, we obtained and analyzed state-wide data reported by age and gender throughout the United States. Autism data were obtained from the U.S. Department of Education via the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (2000-2007, reported annually by age group) and cancer incidence data were obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (1999-2005). IDEA data were further subdivided depending on the method used to diagnose autism (DSM IV or the Code of Federal Regulations, using strict or expanded criteria). Spearman rank correlations were calculated for all possible pairwise combinations of annual autism rates and the incidence of specific cancers. Following this, Bonferroni’s correction was applied to significance values. Two independent methods for determining an overall combined p-value based on dependent correlations were obtained for each set of calculations. High correlations were found between autism rates and the incidence of in situ breast cancer (p≤10−10, modified inverse chi square, n = 16) using data from states that adhere strictly to the Code of Federal Regulations for diagnosing autism. By contrast, few significant correlations were observed between autism prevalence and the incidence of 23 other female and 22 male cancers. These findings suggest that there may be an association between autism and specific forms of cancer.

Big Losses Lead to Irrational Decision-Making in Gambling Situations: Relationship between Deliberation and Impulsivity:

In gambling situations, we found a paradoxical reinforcing effect of high-risk decision-making after repeated big monetary losses. The computerized version of the Iowa Gambling Task (Bechara et al., 2000), which contained six big loss cards in deck B’, was conducted on normal healthy college students. The results indicated that the total number of selections from deck A’ and deck B’ decreased across trials. However, there was no decrease in selections from deck B’. Detailed analysis of the card selections revealed that some people persisted in selecting from the “risky” deck B’ as the number of big losses increased. This tendency was prominent in self-rated deliberative people. However, they were implicitly impulsive, as revealed by the matching familiar figure test. These results suggest that the gap between explicit deliberation and implicit impulsivity drew them into pathological gambling.

Identifying Prototypical Components in Behaviour Using Clustering Algorithms:

Quantitative analysis of animal behaviour is a requirement to understand the task solving strategies of animals and the underlying control mechanisms. The identification of repeatedly occurring behavioural components is thereby a key element of a structured quantitative description. However, the complexity of most behaviours makes the identification of such behavioural components a challenging problem. We propose an automatic and objective approach for determining and evaluating prototypical behavioural components. Behavioural prototypes are identified using clustering algorithms and finally evaluated with respect to their ability to represent the whole behavioural data set. The prototypes allow for a meaningful segmentation of behavioural sequences. We applied our clustering approach to identify prototypical movements of the head of blowflies during cruising flight. The results confirm the previously established saccadic gaze strategy by the set of prototypes being divided into either predominantly translational or rotational movements, respectively. The prototypes reveal additional details about the saccadic and intersaccadic flight sections that could not be unravelled so far. Successful application of the proposed approach to behavioural data shows its ability to automatically identify prototypical behavioural components within a large and noisy database and to evaluate these with respect to their quality and stability. Hence, this approach might be applied to a broad range of behavioural and neural data obtained from different animals and in different contexts.

The Dopamine Transporter Gene, a Spectrum of Most Common Risky Behaviors, and the Legal Status of the Behaviors:

This study tests the specific hypothesis that the 9R/9R genotype in the VNTR of the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1) exerts a general protective effect against a spectrum of risky behaviors in comparison to the 10R/9R and 10R/10R genotypes, drawing on three-time repeated measures of risky behaviors in adolescence and young adulthood on about 822 non-Hispanic white males from the Add Health study. Our data have established two empirical findings. The first is a protective main effect in the DAT1 gene against risky behaviors. The second finding is that the protective effect varies over age, with the effect prominent at ages when a behavior is illegal and the effect largely vanished at ages when the behavior becomes legal or more socially tolerated. Both the protective main effect and the gene-lifecourse interaction effect are replicated across a spectrum of most common risky behaviors: delinquency, variety of sexual partners, binge drinking, drinking quantity, smoking quantity, smoking frequency, marijuana use, cocaine use, other illegal drug use, and seatbelt non-wearing. We also compared individuals with the protective genotype and individuals without it in terms of age, physical maturity, verbal IQ, GPA, received popularity, sent popularity, church attendance, two biological parents, and parental education. These comparisons indicate that the protective effect of DAT1*9R/9R cannot be explained away by these background characteristics. Our work demonstrates how legal/social contexts can enhance or reduce a genetic effect on risky behaviors.