A Blog Around The Clock

New and Exciting in PLoS this week

There are new articles in four PLoS journals 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:

Do Humans Optimally Exploit Redundancy to Control Step Variability in Walking?:

Existing principles used to explain how locomotion is controlled predict average, long-term behavior. However, neuromuscular noise continuously disrupts these movements, presenting a significant challenge for the nervous system. One possibility is that the nervous system must overcome all neuromuscular variability as a constraint limiting performance. Conversely, we show that humans walking on a treadmill exploit redundancy to adjust stepping movements at each stride and maintain performance. This strategy is not required by the task itself, but is predicted by appropriate stochastic control models. Thus, the nervous system simplifies control by strongly regulating goal-relevant fluctuations, while largely ignoring non-essential variations. Properly determining how stochasticity affects control is critical to developing biological models, since neuro-motor fluctuations are intrinsic to these systems. Our work unifies the perspectives of time series analysis researchers, motor coordination researchers, and motor control theorists by providing a single dynamical framework for studying variability in the context of goal-directedness.

Morphometric Relationship, Phylogenetic Correlation, and Character Evolution in the Species-Rich Genus Aphis (Hemiptera: Aphididae):

The species-rich genus Aphis consists of more than 500 species, many of them host-specific on a wide range of plants, yet very similar in general appearance due to convergence toward particular morphological types. Most species have been historically clustered into four main phenotypic groups (gossypii, craccivora, fabae, and spiraecola groups). To confirm the morphological hypotheses between these groups and to examine the characteristics that determine them, multivariate morphometric analyses were performed using 28 characters measured/counted from 40 species. To infer whether the morphological relationships are correlated with the genetic relationships, we compared the morphometric dataset with a phylogeny reconstructed from the combined dataset of three mtDNA and one nuclear DNA regions. Based on a comparison of morphological and molecular datasets, we confirmed morphological reduction or regression in the gossypii group unlike in related groups. Most morphological characteristics of the gossypii group were less variable than for the other groups. Due to these, the gossypii group could be morphologically well separated from the craccivora, fabae, and spiraecola groups. In addition, the correlation of the rates of evolution between morphological and DNA datasets was highly significant in their diversification. The morphological separation between the gossypii group and the other species-groups are congruent with their phylogenetic relationships. Analysis of trait evolution revealed that the morphological traits found to be significant based on the morphometric analyses were confidently correlated with the phylogeny. The dominant patterns of trait evolution resulting in increased rates of short branches and temporally later evolution are likely suitable for the modality of Aphis speciation because they have adapted species-specifically, rapidly, and more recently on many different host plants.

Widespread Presence of Human BOULE Homologs among Animals and Conservation of Their Ancient Reproductive Function:

While sexual reproduction is widespread among animals, it remains enigmatic to what extent sexual reproduction is conserved and when sex-specific gametogenesis (spermatogenesis and oogenesis) originated in animals. Here we demonstrate the presence of the reproductive-specific protein Boule throughout bilaterally-symmetric animals (Bilateria) and the conservation of its male reproductive function in mice. Examination of Boule evolution in insect and mammalian lineages, representing the Protostome and Deuterostome clades of bilateral animals, failed to detect any evidence for accelerated evolution. Instead, purifying selection is the major force behind Boule evolution. Further investigation of Boule homologs among Deuterostome species revealed reproduction-specific expression, with a strong prevalence of testis-biased expression. We further determined the function of a deuterostomian Boule homolog by inactivating Boule in mice (a representative mammal, a class of Deuterostomes). Like its counterpart in Drosophila (a representative of the opposing Protostome clade), mouse Boule is also required only for male reproduction. Loss of mouse Boule prevents sperm production, resulting in a global arrest of spermatogenesis in remarkable similarity to that of Drosophila boule mutants. Our findings are consistent with a common origin for male gametogenesis among metazoans and reveal the high conservation of a reproduction-specific protein among bilaterian animals.

Dynamics of Person-to-Person Interactions from Distributed RFID Sensor Networks:

Digital networks, mobile devices, and the possibility of mining the ever-increasing amount of digital traces that we leave behind in our daily activities are changing the way we can approach the study of human and social interactions. Large-scale datasets, however, are mostly available for collective and statistical behaviors, at coarse granularities, while high-resolution data on person-to-person interactions are generally limited to relatively small groups of individuals. Here we present a scalable experimental framework for gathering real-time data resolving face-to-face social interactions with tunable spatial and temporal granularities. We use active Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices that assess mutual proximity in a distributed fashion by exchanging low-power radio packets. We analyze the dynamics of person-to-person interaction networks obtained in three high-resolution experiments carried out at different orders of magnitude in community size. The data sets exhibit common statistical properties and lack of a characteristic time scale from 20 seconds to several hours. The association between the number of connections and their duration shows an interesting super-linear behavior, which indicates the possibility of defining super-connectors both in the number and intensity of connections. Taking advantage of scalability and resolution, this experimental framework allows the monitoring of social interactions, uncovering similarities in the way individuals interact in different contexts, and identifying patterns of super-connector behavior in the community. These results could impact our understanding of all phenomena driven by face-to-face interactions, such as the spreading of transmissible infectious diseases and information.

Phylogenomic Analysis of Marine Roseobacters:

Members of the Roseobacter clade which play a key role in the biogeochemical cycles of the ocean are diverse and abundant, comprising 10-25% of the bacterioplankton in most marine surface waters. The rapid accumulation of whole-genome sequence data for the Roseobacter clade allows us to obtain a clearer picture of its evolution. In this study about 1,200 likely orthologous protein families were identified from 17 Roseobacter bacteria genomes. Functional annotations for these genes are provided by iProClass. Phylogenetic trees were constructed for each gene using maximum likelihood (ML) and neighbor joining (NJ). Putative organismal phylogenetic trees were built with phylogenomic methods. These trees were compared and analyzed using principal coordinates analysis (PCoA), approximately unbiased (AU) and Shimodaira-Hasegawa (SH) tests. A core set of 694 genes with vertical descent signal that are resistant to horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is used to reconstruct a robust organismal phylogeny. In addition, we also discovered the most likely 109 HGT genes. The core set contains genes that encode ribosomal apparatus, ABC transporters and chaperones often found in the environmental metagenomic and metatranscriptomic data. These genes in the core set are spread out uniformly among the various functional classes and biological processes. Here we report a new multigene-derived phylogenetic tree of the Roseobacter clade. Of particular interest is the HGT of eleven genes involved in vitamin B12 synthesis as well as key enzynmes for dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) degradation. These aquired genes are essential for the growth of Roseobacters and their eukaryotic partners.

Risk-Sensitive Optimal Feedback Control Accounts for Sensorimotor Behavior under Uncertainty:

In economic decision-making it is well-known that when decision-makers have several options, each associated with uncertain outcomes, their decision is not purely determined by the average payoff, but also takes into account the risk (that is, variability of the payoff) associated with each option. Some actions have a highly variable payoff, such as betting money on a horse, whereas others are much less variable, such as the return from a savings account. Whether an individual favors one action over the other depends on their risk-attitude. In contrast to economic decision-making, models of human motor control have exclusively focussed on models that maximize average rewards (minimize average cost). Here, we consider a computational model (an optimal feedback controller) that takes the variance of the cost into account when calculating the best movement strategy. We compare the model with the performance of human subjects in a sensorimotor task and find that the subjects’ behavior is consistent with the predictions of a risk-sensitive optimal feedback controller with most subjects being risk-averse.