There are 27 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, 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:
Global versus Local Conservation Focus of U.S. State Agency Endangered Bird Species Lists:
The development of species priorities for conservation at local or regional scales (for example, within a state or province) poses an interesting paradox. One the one hand, locally or regionally-derived species priorities may lead to greater interest in and resources directed to biodiversity conservation by local or regional institutions. On the other hand, locally or regionally-derived species priorities could overlook national or global priorities. We assessed U.S. state government agency endangered-threatened bird lists to determine the comparative representation of species of global versus local conservation significance on them. State lists tended to be represented primarily by species of low global risk-low global responsibility (range: 15-100%; mean 51%) and high global risk-high global responsibility (range: 0-73%; mean 35%). In 25 states, more than half of the species on the state lists were in the low global risk-low global responsibility category. Most U.S. state agency lists represent a combined strategy of highlighting species of both local and global conservation significance. Even with this combined local-global strategy, most state lists were predominated by species that represent local but not global conservation significance. Such a strategy could have profound negative consequences for many species that are not formally recognized under national endangered species protections but that are also left off of state-level endangered species lists.
Ecoimmunity in Darwin’s Finches: Invasive Parasites Trigger Acquired Immunity in the Medium Ground Finch (Geospiza fortis):
Invasive parasites are a major threat to island populations of animals. Darwin’s finches of the Galápagos Islands are under attack by introduced pox virus (Poxvirus avium) and nest flies (Philornis downsi). We developed assays for parasite-specific antibody responses in Darwin’s finches (Geospiza fortis), to test for relationships between adaptive immune responses to novel parasites and spatial-temporal variation in the occurrence of parasite pressure among G. fortis populations. We developed enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) for the presence of antibodies in the serum of Darwin’s finches specific to pox virus or Philornis proteins. We compared antibody levels between bird populations with and without evidence of pox infection (visible lesions), and among birds sampled before nesting (prior to nest-fly exposure) versus during nesting (with fly exposure). Birds from the Pox-positive population had higher levels of pox-binding antibodies. Philornis-binding antibody levels were higher in birds sampled during nesting. Female birds, which occupy the nest, had higher Philornis-binding antibody levels than males. The study was limited by an inability to confirm pox exposure independent of obvious lesions. However, the lasting effects of pox infection (e.g., scarring and lost digits) were expected to be reliable indicators of prior pox infection. This is the first demonstration, to our knowledge, of parasite-specific antibody responses to multiple classes of parasites in a wild population of birds. Darwin’s finches initiated acquired immune responses to novel parasites. Our study has vital implications for invasion biology and ecological immunology. The adaptive immune response of Darwin’s finches may help combat the negative effects of parasitism. Alternatively, the physiological cost of mounting such a response could outweigh any benefits, accelerating population decline. Tests of the fitness implications of parasite-specific immune responses in Darwin’s finches are urgently needed.
Song Practice Promotes Acute Vocal Variability at a Key Stage of Sensorimotor Learning:
Trial by trial variability during motor learning is a feature encoded by the basal ganglia of both humans and songbirds, and is important for reinforcement of optimal motor patterns, including those that produce speech and birdsong. Given the many parallels between these behaviors, songbirds provide a useful model to investigate neural mechanisms underlying vocal learning. In juvenile and adult male zebra finches, endogenous levels of FoxP2, a molecule critical for language, decrease two hours after morning song onset within area X, part of the basal ganglia-forebrain pathway dedicated to song. In juveniles, experimental ‘knockdown’ of area X FoxP2 results in abnormally variable song in adulthood. These findings motivated our hypothesis that low FoxP2 levels increase vocal variability, enabling vocal motor exploration in normal birds. After two hours in either singing or non-singing conditions (previously shown to produce differential area X FoxP2 levels), phonological and sequential features of the subsequent songs were compared across conditions in the same bird. In line with our prediction, analysis of songs sung by 75 day (75d) birds revealed that syllable structure was more variable and sequence stereotypy was reduced following two hours of continuous practice compared to these features following two hours of non-singing. Similar trends in song were observed in these birds at 65d, despite higher overall within-condition variability at this age. Together with previous work, these findings point to the importance of behaviorally-driven acute periods during song learning that allow for both refinement and reinforcement of motor patterns. Future work is aimed at testing the observation that not only does vocal practice influence expression of molecular networks, but that these networks then influence subsequent variability in these skills.
Striatal FoxP2 Is Actively Regulated during Songbird Sensorimotor Learning:
Mutations in the FOXP2 transcription factor lead to language disorders with developmental onset. Accompanying structural abnormalities in cortico-striatal circuitry indicate that at least a portion of the behavioral phenotype is due to organizational deficits. We previously found parallel FoxP2 expression patterns in human and songbird cortico/pallio-striatal circuits important for learned vocalizations, suggesting that FoxP2’s function in birdsong may generalize to speech. We used zebra finches to address the question of whether FoxP2 is additionally important in the post-organizational function of these circuits. In both humans and songbirds, vocal learning depends on auditory guidance to achieve and maintain optimal vocal output. We tested whether deafening prior to or during the sensorimotor phase of song learning disrupted FoxP2 expression in song circuitry. As expected, the songs of deafened juveniles were abnormal, however basal FoxP2 levels were unaffected. In contrast, when hearing or deaf juveniles sang for two hours in the morning, FoxP2 was acutely down-regulated in the striatal song nucleus, area X. The extent of down-regulation was similar between hearing and deaf birds. Interestingly, levels of FoxP2 and singing were correlated only in hearing birds. Hearing appears to link FoxP2 levels to the amount of vocal practice. As juvenile birds spent more time practicing than did adults, their FoxP2 levels are likely to be low more often. Behaviorally-driven reductions in the mRNA encoding this transcription factor could ultimately affect downstream molecules that function in vocal exploration, especially during sensorimotor learning.
The Effects of Circumcision on the Penis Microbiome:
Circumcision is associated with significant reductions in HIV, HSV-2 and HPV infections among men and significant reductions in bacterial vaginosis among their female partners. We assessed the penile (coronal sulci) microbiota in 12 HIV-negative Ugandan men before and after circumcision. Microbiota were characterized using sequence-tagged 16S rRNA gene pyrosequencing targeting the V3-V4 hypervariable regions. Taxonomic classification was performed using the RDP Naïve Bayesian Classifier. Among the 42 unique bacterial families identified, Pseudomonadaceae and Oxalobactericeae were the most abundant irrespective of circumcision status. Circumcision was associated with a significant change in the overall microbiota (PerMANOVA p = 0.007) and with a significant decrease in putative anaerobic bacterial families (Wilcoxon Signed-Rank test p = 0.014). Specifically, two families–Clostridiales Family XI (p = 0.006) and Prevotellaceae (p = 0.006)–were uniquely abundant before circumcision. Within these families we identified a number of anaerobic genera previously associated with bacterial vaginosis including: Anaerococcus spp., Finegoldia spp., Peptoniphilus spp., and Prevotella spp. The anoxic microenvironment of the subpreputial space may support pro-inflammatory anaerobes that can activate Langerhans cells to present HIV to CD4 cells in draining lymph nodes. Thus, the reduction in putative anaerobic bacteria after circumcision may play a role in protection from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Biochemical Warfare on the Reef: The Role of Glutathione Transferases in Consumer Tolerance of Dietary Prostaglandins:
Despite the profound variation among marine consumers in tolerance for allelochemically-rich foods, few studies have examined the biochemical adaptations underlying diet choice. Here we examine the role of glutathione S-transferases (GSTs) in the detoxification of dietary allelochemicals in the digestive gland of the predatory gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum, a generalist consumer of gorgonian corals. Controlled laboratory feeding experiments were used to investigate the influence of gorgonian diet on Cyphoma GST activity and isoform expression. Gorgonian extracts and semi-purified fractions were also screened to identify inhibitors and possible substrates of Cyphoma GSTs. In addition, we investigated the inhibitory properties of prostaglandins (PGs) structurally similar to antipredatory PGs found in high concentrations in the Caribbean gorgonian Plexaura homomalla. Cyphoma GST subunit composition was invariant and activity was constitutively high regardless of gorgonian diet. Bioassay-guided fractionation of gorgonian extracts revealed that moderately hydrophobic fractions from all eight gorgonian species examined contained putative GST substrates/inhibitors. LC-MS and NMR spectral analysis of the most inhibitory fraction from P. homomalla subsequently identified prostaglandin A2 (PGA2) as the dominant component. A similar screening of commercially available prostaglandins in series A, E, and F revealed that those prostaglandins most abundant in gorgonian tissues (e.g., PGA2) were also the most potent inhibitors. In vivo estimates of PGA2 concentration in digestive gland tissues calculated from snail grazing rates revealed that Cyphoma GSTs would be saturated with respect to PGA2 and operating at or near physiological capacity. The high, constitutive activity of Cyphoma GSTs is likely necessitated by the ubiquitous presence of GST substrates and/or inhibitors in this consumer’s gorgonian diet. This generalist’s GSTs may operate as ‘all-purpose’ detoxification enzymes, capable of conjugating or sequestering a broad range of lipophilic gorgonian compounds, thereby allowing this predator to exploit a range of chemically-defended prey, resulting in a competitive dietary advantage for this species.
Rapid Decline of a Grassland System and Its Ecological and Conservation Implications:
One of the most important conservation issues in ecology is the imperiled state of grassland ecosystems worldwide due to land conversion, desertification, and the loss of native populations and species. The Janos region of northwestern Mexico maintains one of the largest remaining black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colony complexes in North America and supports a high diversity of threatened and endangered species. Yet, cattle grazing, agriculture, and drought have greatly impacted the region. We evaluated the impact of human activities on the Janos grasslands, comparing changes in the vertebrate community over the last two decades. Our results reveal profound, rapid changes in the Janos grassland community, demonstrating large declines in vertebrate abundance across all taxonomic groups. We also found that the 55,000 ha prairie dog colony complex has declined by 73% since 1988. The prairie dog complex has become increasingly fragmented, and their densities have shown a precipitous decline over the years, from an average density of 25 per ha in 1988 to 2 per ha in 2004. We demonstrated that prairie dogs strongly suppressed woody plant encroachment as well as created open grassland habitat by clearing woody vegetation, and found rapid invasion of shrubland once the prairie dogs disappeared from the grasslands. Comparison of grasslands and shrublands showed markedly different species compositions, with species richness being greatest when both habitats were considered together. Our data demonstrate the rapid decline of a grassland ecosystem, and documents the dramatic loss in biodiversity over a very short time period concomitant with anthropogenic grassland degradation and the decline of a keystone species.
The First Bite– Profiling the Predatosome in the Bacterial Pathogen Bdellovibrio:
Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus is a Gram-negative bacterium that is a pathogen of other Gram-negative bacteria, including many bacteria which are pathogens of humans, animals and plants. As such Bdellovibrio has potential as a biocontrol agent, or living antibiotic. B. bacteriovorus HD100 has a large genome and it is not yet known which of it encodes the molecular machinery and genetic control of predatory processes. We have tried to fill this knowledge-gap using mixtures of predator and prey mRNAs to monitor changes in Bdellovibrio gene expression at a timepoint of early-stage prey infection and prey killing in comparison to control cultures of predator and prey alone and also in comparison to Bdellovibrio growing axenically (in a prey-or host independent “HI” manner) on artificial media containing peptone and tryptone. From this we have highlighted genes of the early predatosome with predicted roles in prey killing and digestion and have gained insights into possible regulatory mechanisms as Bdellovibrio enter and establish within the prey bdelloplast. Approximately seven percent of all Bdellovibrio genes were significantly up-regulated at 30 minutes of infection- but not in HI growth- implicating the role of these genes in prey digestion. Five percent were down-regulated significantly, implicating their role in free-swimming, attack-phase physiology. This study gives the first post- genomic insight into the predatory process and reveals some of the important genes that Bdellovibrio expresses inside the prey bacterium during the initial attack.
Antagonistic Parent-Offspring Co-Adaptation:
In species across taxa, offspring have means to influence parental investment (PI). PI thus evolves as an interacting phenotype and indirect genetic effects may strongly affect the co-evolutionary dynamics of offspring and parental behaviors. Evolutionary theory focused on explaining how exaggerated offspring solicitation can be understood as resolution of parent-offspring conflict, but the evolutionary origin and diversification of different forms of family interactions remains unclear. In contrast to previous theory that largely uses a static approach to predict how “offspring individuals” and “parental individuals” should interact given conflict over PI, we present a dynamic theoretical framework of antagonistic selection on the PI individuals obtain/take as offspring and the PI they provide as parents to maximize individual lifetime reproductive success; we analyze a deterministic and a stochastic version of this dynamic framework. We show that a zone for equivalent co-adaptation outcomes exists in which stable levels of PI can evolve and be maintained despite fast strategy transitions and ongoing co-evolutionary dynamics. Under antagonistic co-adaptation, cost-free solicitation can evolve as an adaptation to emerging preferences in parents. We show that antagonistic selection across the offspring and parental life-stage of individuals favors co-adapted offspring and parental behavior within a zone of equivalent outcomes. This antagonistic parent-offspring co-adaptation does not require solicitation to be costly, allows for rapid divergence and evolutionary novelty and potentially explains the origin and diversification of the observed provisioning forms in family life.
Fish as Reservoirs and Vectors of Vibrio cholerae:
Vibrio cholerae, the etiologic agent of cholera, is autochthonous to various aquatic environments, but despite intensive efforts its ecology remains an enigma. Recently, it was suggested that copepods and chironomids, both considered as natural reservoirs of V. cholerae, are dispersed by migratory waterbirds, thus possibly distributing the bacteria between water bodies within and between continents. Although fish have been implicated in the scientific literature with cholera cases, as far as we know, no study actually surveyed the presence of the bacteria in the fish. Here we show for the first time that fish of various species and habitats contain V. cholerae in their digestive tract. Fish (n = 110) were randomly sampled from freshwater and marine habitats in Israel. Ten different fish species sampled from freshwater habitats (lake, rivers and fish ponds), and one marine species, were found to carry V. cholerae. The fish intestine of Sarotherodon galilaeus harboured ca. 5×103 V. cholerae cfu per 1 gr intestine content–high rates compared with known V. cholerae cfu numbers in the bacteria’s natural reservoirs. Our results, combined with evidence from the literature, suggest that fish are reservoirs of V. cholerae. As fish carrying the bacteria swim from one location to another (some fish species move from rivers to lakes or sea and vice versa), they serve as vectors on a small scale. Nevertheless, fish are consumed by waterbirds, which disseminate the bacteria on a global scale. Moreover, V. cholerae isolates had the ability to degrade chitin, indicating a commensal relationship between V. cholerae and fish. Better understanding of V. cholerae ecology can help reduce the times that human beings come into contact with this pathogen and thus minimize the health risk this poses.