There are 10 new articles in PLoS ONE 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, 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:
Many hypotheses are prevalent in the literature predicting why some plant species can become invasive. However, in some respects, we lack a standard approach to compare the breadth of various studies and differentiate between alternative explanations. Furthermore, most of these hypotheses rely on 'changes in density' of an introduced species to infer invasiveness. Here, we propose a simple method to screen invasive plant species for potential differences in density effects between novel regions. Studies of plant competition using density series are a fundamental tool applied to virtually every aspect of plant population ecology to better understand evolution. Hence, we use a simple density series with substitution contrasting the performance of Centaurea solstitialis in monoculture (from one region) to mixtures (seeds from two regions). All else being equal, if there is no difference between the introduced species in the two novel regions compared, Argentina and California, then there should be no competitive differences between intra and inter-regional competition series. Using a replicated regression design, seeds of each species were sown in the greenhouse at 5 densities in monoculture and mixed and grown till onset of flowering. Centaurea seeds from California had higher germination while seedlings had significantly greater survival than Argentina. There was no evidence for density dependence in any measure for the California region but negative density dependence was detected in the germination of seeds from Argentina. The relative differences in competition also differed between regions with no evidence of differential competitive effects of seeds from Argentina in mixture versus monoculture while seeds from California expressed a relative cost in germination and relative growth rate in mixtures with Argentina. In the former instance, lack of difference does not mean 'no ecological differences' but does suggest that local adaptation in competitive abilities has not occurred. Importantly, this method successfully detected differences in the response of an invasive species to changes in density between novel regions which suggests that it is a useful preliminary means to explore invasiveness.
Disease introduction into the New World during colonial expansion is well documented and had a major impact on indigenous populations; however, few diseases have been associated with early human migrations into North America. During the late Pleistocene epoch, Asia and North America were joined by the Beringian Steppe ecosystem which allowed animals and humans to freely cross what would become a water barrier in the Holocene. Anthrax has clearly been shown to be dispersed by human commerce and trade in animal products contaminated with Bacillus anthracis spores. Humans appear to have brought B. anthracis to this area from Asia and then moved it further south as an ice-free corridor opened in central Canada ~13,000 ybp. In this study, we have defined the evolutionary history of Western North American (WNA) anthrax using 2,850 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and 285 geographically diverse B. anthracis isolates. Phylogeography of the major WNA B. anthracis clone reveals ancestral populations in northern Canada with progressively derived populations to the south; the most recent ancestor of this clonal lineage is in Eurasia. Our phylogeographic patterns are consistent with B. anthracis arriving with humans via the Bering Land Bridge. This northern-origin hypothesis is highly consistent with our phylogeographic patterns and rates of SNP accumulation observed in current day B. anthracis isolates. Continent-wide dispersal of WNA B. anthracis likely required movement by later European colonizers, but the continent's first inhabitants may have seeded the initial North American populations.
The amount of genomic sequence information continues to grow at an exponential rate, while the identification and characterization of genes without known homologs remains a major challenge. For non-model organisms with limited resources for manipulative studies, high-throughput transcriptomic data combined with bioinformatics methods provide a powerful approach to obtain initial insights into the function of unknown genes. In this study, we report the identification and characterization of a novel family of putatively secreted, small, cysteine-rich proteins herein named Small Cysteine-Rich Proteins (SCRiPs). Their discovery in expressed sequence tag (EST) libraries from the coral Montastraea faveolata required the performance of an iterative search strategy based on BLAST and Hidden-Markov-Model algorithms. While a discernible homolog could neither be identified in the genome of the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis, nor in a large EST dataset from the symbiotic sea anemone Aiptasia pallida, we identified SCRiP sequences in multiple scleractinian coral species. Therefore, we postulate that this gene family is an example of lineage-specific gene expansion in reef-building corals. Previously published gene expression microarray data suggest that a sub-group of SCRiPs is highly responsive to thermal stress. Furthermore, data from microarray experiments investigating developmental gene expression in the coral Acropora millepora suggest that different SCRiPs may play distinct roles in the development of corals. The function of these proteins remains to be elucidated, but our results from in silico, transcriptomic, and phylogenetic analyses provide initial insights into the evolution of SCRiPs, a novel, taxonomically restricted gene family that may be responsible for a lineage-specific trait in scleractinian corals.