New and Exciting in PLoS this week

Some cool papers tonight in 4 out of 7 PLoS journals. 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:

Short Telomeres in Hatchling Snakes: Erythrocyte Telomere Dynamics and Longevity in Tropical Pythons:

Telomere length (TL) has been found to be associated with life span in birds and humans. However, other studies have demonstrated that TL does not affect survival among old humans. Furthermore, replicative senescence has been shown to be induced by changes in the protected status of the telomeres rather than the loss of TL. In the present study we explore whether age- and sex-specific telomere dynamics affect life span in a long-lived snake, the water python (Liasis fuscus). Erythrocyte TL was measured using the Telo TAGGG TL Assay Kit (Roche). In contrast to other vertebrates, TL of hatchling pythons was significantly shorter than that of older snakes. However, during their first year of life hatchling TL increased substantially. While TL of older snakes decreased with age, we did not observe any correlation between TL and age in cross-sectional sampling. In older snakes, female TL was longer than that of males. When using recapture as a proxy for survival, our results do not support that longer telomeres resulted in an increased water python survival/longevity. In fish high telomerase activity has been observed in somatic cells exhibiting high proliferation rates. Hatchling pythons show similar high somatic cell proliferation rates. Thus, the increase in TL of this group may have been caused by increased telomerase activity. In older humans female TL is longer than that of males. This has been suggested to be caused by high estrogen levels that stimulate increased telomerase activity. Thus, high estrogen levels may also have caused the longer telomeres in female pythons. The lack of correlation between TL and age among old snakes and the fact that longer telomeres did not appear to affect python survival do not support that erythrocyte telomere dynamics has a major impact on water python longevity.

'Glocal' Robustness Analysis and Model Discrimination for Circadian Oscillators:

Robustness is an intrinsic property of many biological systems. To quantify the robustness of a model that represents such a system, two approaches exist: global methods assess the volume in parameter space that is compliant with the proper functioning of the system; and local methods, in contrast, study the model for a given parameter set and determine its robustness. Local methods are fundamentally biased due to the a priori choice of a particular parameter set. Our 'glocal' analysis combines the two complementary approaches and provides an objective measure of robustness. We apply this method to two prominent, recent models of the cyanobacterial circadian oscillator. Our results allow discriminating the two models based on this analysis: both global and local measures of robustness favor one of the two models. The 'glocal' method also identifies key factors that influence robustness. For instance, we find that in both models the most fragile reactions are the ones that affect the concentration of the feedback component.

The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal:

Listening to music is amongst the most rewarding experiences for humans. Music has no functional resemblance to other rewarding stimuli, and has no demonstrated biological value, yet individuals continue listening to music for pleasure. It has been suggested that the pleasurable aspects of music listening are related to a change in emotional arousal, although this link has not been directly investigated. In this study, using methods of high temporal sensitivity we investigated whether there is a systematic relationship between dynamic increases in pleasure states and physiological indicators of emotional arousal, including changes in heart rate, respiration, electrodermal activity, body temperature, and blood volume pulse. Twenty-six participants listened to self-selected intensely pleasurable music and "neutral" music that was individually selected for them based on low pleasure ratings they provided on other participants' music. The "chills" phenomenon was used to index intensely pleasurable responses to music. During music listening, continuous real-time recordings of subjective pleasure states and simultaneous recordings of sympathetic nervous system activity, an objective measure of emotional arousal, were obtained. Results revealed a strong positive correlation between ratings of pleasure and emotional arousal. Importantly, a dissociation was revealed as individuals who did not experience pleasure also showed no significant increases in emotional arousal. These results have broader implications by demonstrating that strongly felt emotions could be rewarding in themselves in the absence of a physically tangible reward or a specific functional goal.

Multilevel Selection in Models of Prebiotic Evolution II: A Direct Comparison of Compartmentalization and Spatial Self-Organization:

The origin of life has ever been attracting scientific inquiries. The RNA world hypothesis suggests that, before the evolution of DNA and protein, primordial life was based on RNA-like molecules both for information storage and chemical catalysis. In the simplest form, an RNA world consists of RNA molecules that can catalyze the replication of their own copies. Thus, an interesting question is whether a system of RNA-like replicators can increase its complexity through Darwinian evolution and approach the modern form of life. It is, however, known that simple natural selection acting on individual replicators is insufficient to account for the evolution of complexity due to the evolution of parasite-like templates. Two solutions have been suggested: compartmentalization of replicators by membranes (i.e., protocells) and spatial self-organization of a replicator population. Here, we make a direct comparison of the two suggestions by computer simulations. Our results show that the two suggestions can lead to unanticipated and contrasting consequences in the long-term evolution of replicating molecules. The results also imply a novel advantage in the spatial self-organization for the evolution of complexity in RNA-like replicator systems.

On the Track of DNA Methylation: An Interview with Adrian Bird:

The day school let out for the summer, my daughter and I packed our bags for Britain, where we had lived for a few months in 2006. Annie was eager to reconnect with her friends there, and I had arranged to conduct three interviews. In desperation and with the clock ticking, I struggled to fit my bulky recorder into my wheelie when it dawned on me that the "talk app" on my daughter's iphone should be up to the job. You can imagine the reluctance and skepticism on the part of my 15-year-old, but she managed to get into the spirit and acquiesced.

First up on my schedule was Adrian Bird (Image 1), who holds the Buchanan Chair of Genetics at the University of Edinburgh and is also Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology. Long before the word "epigenome" was coined, Bird began mapping the distribution of DNA methylation (occurring at the cytosine of CpG dinucleotides) in the genomes of a variety of species. His work emerged just as agarose gels, restriction enzymes, and Southern blots were being developed. Bird later spawned the idea of CpG islands, pockets of DNA rich in unmethylated CpGs and frequently found in conjunction with the promoter regions of mammalian genes. Bird's observation provided a roadmap for disease gene discovery for about 15 years, until human genome draft sequences began to emerge.

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