So, let's see what was new in PLoS Genetics, PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Pathogens, PLoS ONE and PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases last week. As always, you should rate the articles, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about the papers. Here are my own picks for the week - you go and look for your own favourites:
Human evolutionary history has been investigated mainly through the prism of genetic variation of the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. These two uniparentally inherited markers reflect the demographic history of males and females, respectively. Their contrasting patterns of genetic differentiation reveal that women are more mobile than men among populations, which might be due to specific marriage rules. However, these two markers provide only a limited understanding of the underlying demographic processes. To obtain an independent picture of sex-specific demography, we developed a new multi-locus approach based on the analysis of markers from the autosomal and X-chromosomal compartments. We applied our method to 21 human populations sampled in Central Asia, with contrasting social organizations and lifestyles. We found that, in patrilineal populations, not only the migration rate but also the number of reproductive individuals is likely to be higher for women. This result does not hold for bilineal populations, for which both the migration rate and the number of reproductive individuals can be equal for both sexes. The social organization of patrilineal populations is the likely cause of this pattern. This study suggests that differences in sex-specific migration rates may not be the only cause of contrasting male and female differentiation in humans, and that differences in effective numbers do matter.
Like many primate species, the mating system of humans is considered to be moderately polygynous (i.e., males exhibit a higher variance in reproductive success than females). As a consequence, males are expected to have a lower effective population size (Ne) than females, and the proportion of neutral genetic variation on the X chromosome (relative to the autosomes) should be higher than expected under the assumption of strict neutrality and an equal breeding sex ratio. We test for the effects of polygyny by measuring levels of neutral polymorphism at 40 independent loci on the X chromosome and autosomes in six human populations. To correct for mutation rate heterogeneity among loci, we divide our diversity estimates within human populations by divergence with orangutan at each locus. Consistent with expectations under a model of polygyny, we find elevated levels of X-linked versus autosomal diversity. While it is possible that multiple demographic processes may contribute to the observed patterns of genomic diversity (i.e., background selection, changes in population size, and sex-specific migration), we conclude that an historical excess of breeding females over the number of breeding males can by itself explain most of the observed increase in effective population size of the X chromosome.
Sensory systems have the ability to adapt to changes in the environment. In a quiet room, the nervous system is very responsive, so that even a whisper can be easily understood. In contrast, the perceived loudness on a crowded street will be reduced to prevent an overload of the nervous system. Two different hypotheses have been proposed to explain how the nervous system achieves this adaptation. According to one idea, all present sensory signals are equally enhanced, so that the whole range of input signals is reliably represented. On the other hand, the aim of the nervous system may be to extract the most important parts of the acoustic signal, for example, an approaching car, and thus abolish the irrelevant rest. To address which of these two principles is implemented in the auditory system of the cricket, we investigated the responses of a single auditory neuron, called interneuron AN2, to different sound signals. We found that adaptation actually reduces the amount of encoded information when considering the whole range of input signals. However, the changes were also not in agreement with the idea that only the most important signal is transmitted, because the amount of information conveyed about the loudest part of the signal does not increase. Thus, we here report the unusual case of a reduction of information transfer by adaptation, while in most other systems reported of so far adaptation actually enhances coding of sensory information.
Natural selection is shortsighted and therefore does not necessarily drive populations toward improved long-term performance. Some traits may evolve because they provide immediate gains, even though they are less successful in the long run than some alternatives. Here, we use digital organisms to analyze the ability of evolving populations to optimize their mutation rate, a fundamental evolutionary parameter. We show that when the mutation rate is constrained to be high, populations adapt considerably faster over the long term than when the mutation rate is allowed to evolve. By varying the fitness landscape, we show that natural selection tends to reduce the mutation rate on rugged landscapes (but not on smooth ones) so as to avoid the production of harmful mutations, even though this short-term benefit limits adaptation over the long term.
H5N1 influenza virus has been responsible for poultry outbreaks over the last 12 years--the longest recorded example of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) circulation in poultry. The ecological success of this virus in diverse species of both poultry and wild birds with sporadic introduction to humans suggests that it is a likely source of the next human pandemic. Genome sequences of H5N1 viruses reveal extensive genetic reassortment (mixing) with other influenza subtypes to produce many H5N1 genotypes that have developed into multiple genetically distinct clades, some of which have spread to affect over 60 countries. Here, we analyze all available sequence data of avian influenza viruses from Eurasia and show that the original HPAI H5N1 virus (referred to as A/goose/Guangdong/1/96) was likely introduced directly into poultry as an intact virus particle from wild aquatic birds. In contrast, H5N1 genotypes were generated in aquatic poultry populations after the introduction of A/goose/Guangdong/1/96 virus. Our results suggest that the transmission of reassortant viruses through the diverse poultry populations in farms and markets in China has selected H5N1 viruses that are well-adapted to multiple hosts and reduced the interspecies transmission barrier of those viruses.
The accompanying research report by King and colleagues  describes a trachoma survey performed in Ayod County, southern Sudan. They performed a cross-sectional two-stage cluster survey of trachoma status in November 2006 and found levels of disease that rival those in the most hyper-endemic areas: 88% of children between ages 1 and 9 years had clinically active trachoma and the children were actually starting to show trichiasis (approximately 3%). In those over 14 years of age, 59% had clinically active trachoma, 14.6% had trichiasis, and 6.4% had corneal opacity. Trachoma was present in virtually all households; 98% had at least one person having active trachoma, and one-third of households had individuals with trichiasis.
In a dynamic environment stimulus task relevancy could be altered through time and it is not always possible to dissociate relevant and irrelevant objects from the very first moment they come to our sight. In such conditions, subjects need to retain maximum possible information in their WM until it is clear which items should be eliminated from WM to free attention and memory resources. Here, we examined the neural basis of irrelevant information filtering from WM by recording human ERP during a visual change detection task in which the stimulus irrelevancy was revealed in a later stage of the task forcing the subjects to keep all of the information in WM until test object set was presented. Assessing subjects' behaviour we found that subjects' RT was highly correlated with the number of irrelevant objects and not the relevant one, pointing to the notion that filtering, and not selection, process was used to handle the distracting effect of irrelevant objects. In addition we found that frontal N150 and parietal N200 peak latencies increased systematically as the amount of irrelevancy load increased. Interestingly, the peak latency of parietal N200, and not frontal N150, better correlated with subjects' RT. The difference between frontal N150 and parietal N200 peak latencies varied with the amount of irrelevancy load suggesting that functional connectivity between modules underlying fronto-parietal potentials vary concomitant with the irrelevancy load. These findings suggest the existence of two neural modules, responsible for irrelevant objects elimination, whose activity latency and functional connectivity depend on the number of irrelevant object.