New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 61 articles published in PLoS ONE this week. Here are some of the highlights, look around for more and please comment, rate, and send trackbacks:
Adaptive Evolution and Functional Redesign of Core Metabolic Proteins in Snakes:

Adaptive evolutionary episodes in core metabolic proteins are uncommon, and are even more rarely linked to major macroevolutionary shifts. We conducted extensive molecular evolutionary analyses on snake mitochondrial proteins and discovered multiple lines of evidence suggesting that the proteins at the core of aerobic metabolism in snakes have undergone remarkably large episodic bursts of adaptive change. We show that snake mitochondrial proteins experienced unprecedented levels of positive selection, coevolution, convergence, and reversion at functionally critical residues. We examined Cytochrome C oxidase subunit I (COI) in detail, and show that it experienced extensive modification of normally conserved residues involved in proton transport and delivery of electrons and oxygen. Thus, adaptive changes likely altered the flow of protons and other aspects of function in CO, thereby influencing fundamental characteristics of aerobic metabolism. We refer to these processes as “evolutionary redesign” because of the magnitude of the episodic bursts and the degree to which they affected core functional residues. The evolutionary redesign of snake COI coincided with adaptive bursts in other mitochondrial proteins and substantial changes in mitochondrial genome structure. It also generally coincided with or preceded major shifts in ecological niche and the evolution of extensive physiological adaptations related to lung reduction, large prey consumption, and venom evolution. The parallel timing of these major evolutionary events suggests that evolutionary redesign of metabolic and mitochondrial function may be related to, or underlie, the extreme changes in physiological and metabolic efficiency, flexibility, and innovation observed in snake evolution.

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First Dinosaur Tracks from the Arabian Peninsula:

The evolutionary history of Mesozoic terrestrial vertebrates from the Arabian Peninsula is virtually unknown. Despite vast exposures of rocky outcrops, only a handful of fossils have yet been described from the region. Here we report a multi-taxon dinosaur track assemblage near Madar village, 47 km north of Sana’a, Republic of Yemen. This represents the first dinosaur tracksite from the Arabian Peninsula, and the only multi-taxon dinosaur ichnosite in the Middle East. Measurements were taken directly from trackway impressions, following standard ichnological conventions. The presence of bipedal trackmakers is evidenced by a long series of pes imprints preserving smoothly rounded posterior margins, no evidence of a hallux, bluntly rounded digit tips and digital divarication angles characteristic of ornithopod dinosaurs. Nearby, eleven parallel quadrupedal trackways document a sauropod herd that included large and small individuals traveling together. Based on the morphology of manus impressions along with a narrow-gauged stance, the quadrupedal trackways were made by non-titanosauriform neosauropods. Additional isolated tracks and trackways of sauropod and ornithopod dinosaurs are preserved nearby. Taken together, these discoveries present the most evocative window to date into the evolutionary history of dinosaurs of the Arabian Peninsula. Given the limited Mesozoic terrestrial record from the region, this discovery is of both temporal and geographic significance, and massive exposures of similarly-aged outcrops nearby offer great promise for future discoveries.

Anomalous Hypothalamic Responses to Humor in Cataplexy:

Cataplexy is observed in a subset of patients with narcolepsy and affects approximately 1 in 2,000 persons. Cataplexy is most often triggered by strong emotions such as laughter, which can result in transient, yet debilitating, muscle atonia. The objective of this study was to examine the neural systems underlying humor processing in individuals with cataplexy. While undergoing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), we showed ten narcolepsy-cataplexy patients and ten healthy controls humorous cartoons. In addition, we examined the brain activity of one subject while in a full-blown cataplectic attack. Behavioral results showed that participants with cataplexy rated significantly fewer humorous cartoons as funny compared to controls. Concurrent fMRI showed that patients, when compared to controls and in the absence of overt cataplexy symptoms, showed pronounced activity in the emotional network including the ventral striatum and hypothalamus while viewing humorous versus non-humorous cartoons. Increased activity was also observed in the right inferior frontal gyri -a core component of the inhibitory circuitry. In comparison, the one subject who experienced a cataplectic attack showed dramatic reductions in hypothalamic activity. These findings suggest an overdrive of the emotional circuitry and possible compensatory suppression by cortical inhibitory regions in cataplexy. Moreover, during cataplectic attacks, the hypothalamus is characterized by a marked decrease in activity similar to that observed during sleep. One possible explanation for these findings is an initial overdrive and compensatory shutdown of the hypothalamus resulting in full cataplectic symptoms.

Missing Girls in India: Infanticide, Feticide and Made-to-Order Pregnancies? Insights from Hospital-Based Sex-Ratio-at-Birth over the Last Century:

There are 44 million missing women in India. Gender bias; neglect of girls, infanticides and feticides are responsible. The sex ratio at birth can be used to examine the influence of antenatal sex selection on the sex ratio. Records from 321,991 deliveries at one hospital over 11 decades were utilized. The middle year in each decade was taken as representative of the decade. Data from 33,524 deliveries were then analyzed. Data for each decade was combined with that of previous decades and compared to the data of subsequent decades to look for any change in the trend. Sex ratio in the second children against sex of the first child was studied separately. The mean sex ratio for the 110 years examined was 910 girls to 1000 boys (95% CI; 891 to 930). The sex ratio dropped significantly from 935 (CI: 905 to 967) before 1979, to 892 (CI: 868 to 918) after 1980 (P = 0.04). The sex ratio in the second child was significantly lower if the first child was a girl [716 (CI: 672 to 762] (P<0.001). On the other hand, there was an excess of girls born to mothers whose first child was boy [1140 girls per 1000 boys (CI: 1072 to 1212 P<0.001)]. The sex ratio fell significantly after 1980 when ultra sound machines for antenatal sex determination became available. The sex ratio in second children if the first was a girl was even lower. Sex selective abortions after antenatal sex determination are thus implicated. However data on second children especially the excess of girls born to mothers who have a previous boy seen in the decade before the advent of antenatal ultra sound machines, suggests that other means of sex selection are also used.

Maternal Programming of Sexual Behavior and Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Gonadal Function in the Female Rat:

Variations in parental care predict the age of puberty, sexual activity in adolescence and the age at first pregnancy in humans. These findings parallel descriptions of maternal effects on phenotypic variation in reproductive function in other species. Despite the prevalence of such reports, little is known about potential biological mechanisms and this especially true for effects on female reproductive development. We examined the hypothesis that parental care might alter hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian function and thus reproductive function in the female offspring of rat mothers that vary pup licking/grooming (LG) over the first week postpartum. As adults, the female offspring of Low LG mothers showed 1) increased sexual receptivity; 2) increased plasma levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) and progesterone at proestrus; 3) an increased positive-feedback effect of estradiol on both plasma LH levels and gonadotropin releasing-hormone (GnRH) expression in the medial preoptic region; and 4) increased estrogen receptor α (ERα) expression in the anterioventral paraventricular nucleus, a system that regulates GnRH. The results of a cross-fostering study provide evidence for a direct effect of postnatal maternal care as well as a possible prenatal influence. Indeed, we found evidence for increased fetal testosterone levels at embryonic day 20 in the female fetuses of High compared to Low LG mothers. Finally, the female offspring of Low LG mothers showed accelerated puberty compared to those of High LG mothers. These data suggest maternal effects in the rat on the development of neuroendocrine systems that regulate female sexual behaviour. Together with studies revealing a maternal effect on the maternal behavior of the female offspring, these findings suggest that maternal care can program alternative reproductive phenotypes in the rat through regionally-specific effects on ERα expression.

The Parallel Worm Tracker: A Platform for Measuring Average Speed and Drug-Induced Paralysis in Nematodes:

Caenorhabditis elegans locomotion is a simple behavior that has been widely used to dissect genetic components of behavior, synaptic transmission, and muscle function. Many of the paradigms that have been created to study C. elegans locomotion rely on qualitative experimenter observation. Here we report the implementation of an automated tracking system developed to quantify the locomotion of multiple individual worms in parallel. Our tracking system generates a consistent measurement of locomotion that allows direct comparison of results across experiments and experimenters and provides a standard method to share data between laboratories. The tracker utilizes a video camera attached to a zoom lens and a software package implemented in MATLAB®. We demonstrate several proof-of-principle applications for the tracker including measuring speed in the absence and presence of food and in the presence of serotonin. We further use the tracker to automatically quantify the time course of paralysis of worms exposed to aldicarb and levamisole and show that tracker performance compares favorably to data generated using a hand-scored metric. Although this is not the first automated tracking system developed to measure C. elegans locomotion, our tracking software package is freely available and provides a simple interface that includes tools for rapid data collection and analysis. By contrast with other tools, it is not dependent on a specific set of hardware. We propose that the tracker may be used for a broad range of additional worm locomotion applications including genetic and chemical screening.

Effects of Gape and Tooth Position on Bite Force and Skull Stress in the Dingo (Canis lupus dingo) Using a 3-Dimensional Finite Element Approach:

Models of the mammalian jaw have predicted that bite force is intimately linked to jaw gape and to tooth position. Despite widespread use, few empirical studies have provided evidence to validate these models in non-human mammals and none have considered the influence of gape angle on the distribution of stress. Here using a multi-property finite element (FE) model of Canis lupus dingo, we examined the influence of gape angle and bite point on both bite force and cranial stress. Bite force data in relation to jaw gape and along the tooth row, are in broad agreement with previously reported results. However stress data showed that the skull of C. l. dingo is mechanically suited to withstand stresses at wide gapes; a result that agreed well with previously held views regarding carnivoran evolution. Stress data, combined with bite force information, suggested that there is an optimal bite angle of between 25° and 35° in C. l. dingo. The function of these rather small bite angles remains unclear.

Imagine Jane and Identify John: Face Identity Aftereffects Induced by Imagined Faces:

It is not known whether prolonged exposure to perceived and imagined complex visual images produces similar shifts in subsequent perception through selective adaptation. This question is important because a positive finding would suggest that perception and imagery of visual stimuli are mediated by shared neural networks. In this study, we used a selective adaptation procedure designed to induce high-level face-identity aftereffects–a phenomenon in which extended exposure to a particular face facilitates recognition of subsequent faces with opposite features while impairing recognition of all other faces. We report here that adaptation to either real or imagined faces produces a similar shift in perception and that identity boundaries represented in real and imagined faces are equivalent. Together, our results show that identity information contained in imagined and real faces produce similar behavioral outcomes. Our findings of high-level visual aftereffects induced by imagined stimuli can be taken as evidence for the involvement of shared neural networks that mediate perception and imagery of complex visual stimuli.

Linking Social and Vocal Brains: Could Social Segregation Prevent a Proper Development of a Central Auditory Area in a Female Songbird?:

Direct social contact and social interaction affect speech development in human infants and are required in order to maintain perceptual abilities; however the processes involved are still poorly known. In the present study, we tested the hypothesis that social segregation during development would prevent the proper development of a central auditory area, using a “classical” animal model of vocal development, a songbird. Based on our knowledge of European starling, we raised young female starlings with peers and only adult male tutors. This ensured that female would show neither social bond with nor vocal copying from males. Electrophysiological recordings performed when these females were adult revealed perceptual abnormalities: they presented a larger auditory area, a lower proportion of specialized neurons and a larger proportion of generalist sites than wild-caught females, whereas these characteristics were similar to those observed in socially deprived (physically separated) females. These results confirmed and added to earlier results for males, suggesting that the degree of perceptual deficiency reflects the degree of social separation. To our knowledge, this report constitutes the first evidence that social segregation can, as much as physical separation, alter the development of a central auditory area.

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