New and Exciting in PLoS this week

I have been remiss this week….so here’s a sampling from all seven PLoS journals over the course of this week. 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:


Classical Morphology of Plants as an Elementary Instance of Classical Invariant Theory:

It has long been known that structural chemistry shows an intriguing correspondence with Classical Invariant Theory (CIT). Under this view, an algebraic binary form of the degree n corresponds to a chemical atom with valence n and each physical molecule or ion has an invariant-theoretic counterpart. This theory was developed using the Aronhold symbolical approach and the symbolical processes of convolution/transvection in CIT was characterized as a potential “accurate morphological method”. However, CIT has not been applied to the formal morphology of living organisms. Based on the morphological interpretation of binary form, as well as the process of convolution/transvection, the First and Second Fundamental Theorems of CIT and the Nullforms of CIT, we show how CIT can be applied to the structure of plants, especially when conceptualized as a series of plant metamers (phytomers). We also show that the weight of the covariant/invariant that describes a morphological structure is a criterion of simplicity and, therefore, we argue that this allows us to formulate a parsimonious method of formal morphology. We demonstrate that the “theory of axilar bud” is the simplest treatment of the grass seedling/embryo. Our interpretations also represent Troll’s bauplan of the angiosperms, the principle of variable proportions, morphological misfits, the basic types of stem segmentation, and Goethe’s principle of metamorphosis in terms of CIT. Binary forms of different degrees might describe any repeated module of plant organisms. As bacteria, invertebrates, and higher vertebrates are all generally shared a metameric morphology, wider implications of the proposed symmetry between CIT and formal morphology of plants are apparent.

Financing of U.S. Biomedical Research and New Drug Approvals across Therapeutic Areas:

We estimated U.S. biomedical research funding across therapeutic areas, determined the association with disease burden, and evaluated new drug approvals that resulted from this investment. We calculated funding from 1995 to 2005 and totaled Food and Drug Administration approvals in eight therapeutic areas (cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, HIV/AIDS, infectious disease excluding HIV, oncology, and respiratory) primarily using public data. We then calculated correlations between funding, published estimates of disease burden, and drug approvals. Financial support for biomedical research from 1995 to 2005 increased across all therapeutic areas between 43% and 369%. Industry was the principal funder of all areas except HIV/AIDS, infectious disease, and oncology, which were chiefly sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Total (ρ = 0.70; P = .03) and industry funding (ρ = 0.69; P = .04) were correlated with projected disease burden in high income countries while NIH support (ρ = 0.80; P = .01) was correlated with projected disease burden globally. From 1995 to 2005 the number of new approvals was flat or declined across therapeutic areas, and over an 8-year lag period, neither total nor industry funding was correlated with future approvals. Across therapeutic areas, biomedical research funding increased substantially, appears aligned with disease burden in high income countries, but is not linked to new drug approvals. The translational gap between funding and new therapies is affecting all of medicine, and remedies must include changes beyond additional financial investment.

Paternal mtDNA and Maleness Are Co-Inherited but Not Causally Linked in Mytilid Mussels:

In marine mussels of the genus Mytilus there are two mitochondrial genomes. One is transmitted through the female parent, which is the normal transmission route in animals, and the other is transmitted through the male parent which is an unusual phenomenon. In males the germ cell line is dominated by the paternal mitochondrial genome and the somatic cell line by the maternal. Research to date has not allowed a clear answer to the question of whether inheritance of the paternal genome is causally related to maleness. Here we present results from hybrid crosses, from triploid mussels and from observations of sperm mitochondria in fertilized eggs which clearly show that maleness and presence of the paternal mitochondrial genome can be decoupled. These same results show that the female mussel has exclusive control of whether her progeny will inherit the mitochondrial genome of the male parent. These findings are important in our efforts to understand the mechanistic basis of this unusual mode of mitochondrial DNA inheritance that is common among bivalves.

The Effect of Growth Conditions on the Seed Size/Number Trade-Off:

If the amount of resources allocated to reproduction (K) is fixed, then an increase in seed mass (S) can only be achieved by a decrease in seed number (n = K/S). Thus, log(n) = log(K)−log(S) producing a slope of −1 when seed mass and number are plotted on log-log axes. However, in comparative studies, empirical support for a slope of −1 is limited and contentious, leading some to question the utility of this concept. First, we show that the expected slope depends on whether genotypes and species producing seeds of different mass are expected to reach the same adult size and that this in turn depends partly on the nature of growth. Second, we present experimental results using a population of recombinant inbred lines (RILs) of Arabidopsis thaliana. When these RILs are grown in large pots with plentiful nutrients, they exhibit a trade-off between seed size and number with a slope of −1.68 (±0.18) on log-log axes. This occurs because of genetic correlations between seed mass and adult size so that, under the right growth conditions, lines producing lighter seeds have the genetic potential to produce larger rosettes and hence a greater total mass of seeds. We re-grew lines in small pots (10 and 40 mm diameter) in a nutrient-poor substrate so that final adult size was heavily restricted by pot size. Under our growth conditions, small-seeded lines were unable to produce a greater total mass of seeds. Hence a trade-off emerged between seed mass and seed number with a slope of −1.166±0.319 on log-log axes in 40-mm diameter pots (close to the expected value of −1), although the slope was 0.132±0.263 in 10-mm diameter pots, demonstrating that the nature of the trade-off is sensitive to the growth conditions.

When Right Feels Left: Referral of Touch and Ownership between the Hands:

Feeling touch on a body part is paradigmatically considered to require stimulation of tactile afferents from the body part in question, at least in healthy non-synaesthetic individuals. In contrast to this view, we report a perceptual illusion where people experience “phantom touches” on a right rubber hand when they see it brushed simultaneously with brushes applied to their left hand. Such illusory duplication and transfer of touch from the left to the right hand was only elicited when a homologous (i.e., left and right) pair of hands was brushed in synchrony for an extended period of time. This stimulation caused the majority of our participants to perceive the right rubber hand as their own and to sense two distinct touches – one located on the right rubber hand and the other on their left (stimulated) hand. This effect was supported by quantitative subjective reports in the form of questionnaires, behavioral data from a task in which participants pointed to the felt location of their right hand, and physiological evidence obtained by skin conductance responses when threatening the model hand. Our findings suggest that visual information augments subthreshold somatosensory responses in the ipsilateral hemisphere, thus producing a tactile experience from the non-stimulated body part. This finding is important because it reveals a new bilateral multisensory mechanism for tactile perception and limb ownership.

Assessing Risk in Focal Arboviral Infections: Are We Missing the Big or Little Picture?:

Focal arboviral infections affecting a subset of the overall population present an often overlooked set of challenges in the assessment and reporting of risk and the detection of spatial patterns. Our objective was to assess the variation in risk when using different at-risk populations and geographic scales for the calculation of incidence risk and the detection of geographic hot-spots of infection. We explored these variations using a pediatric arbovirus, La Crosse virus (LACV), as our model. Descriptive and cluster analyses were performed on probable and confirmed cases of LACV infections reported to the Tennessee Department of Health from 1997 to 2006, using three at-risk populations (the total population, the population 18 years and younger, and the population 15 years and younger) and at two geographic levels (county and census tract) to assess the variation in incidence risk and to investigate evidence of clustering using both global and local spatial statistics. We determined that the most appropriate at-risk population to calculate incidence risk and to assess the evidence of clustering was the population 15 years and younger. Based on our findings, the most appropriate geographical level to conduct spatial analyses and report incidence risk is the census tract level. The incidence risk in the population 15 years and younger at the county level ranged from 0 to 226.5 per 100,000 persons (median 41.5) in those counties reporting cases (n = 14) and at the census tract level it ranged from 50.9 to 673.9 per 100,000 persons (median 126.7) in those census tracts reporting cases (n = 51). To our knowledge, this is the highest reported incidence risk for this population at the county level for Tennessee and at the census tract level nationally. The results of this study indicate the possibility of missing disease clusters resulting from performing incidence risk investigations of focal diseases using inappropriate at-risk populations and/or at large geographic scales. Improved disease surveillance and health planning will result through the use of well defined at-risk populations and the use of appropriate geographic scales for the analysis and reporting of diseases. The finding of a high incidence risk of LACV infections in eastern Tennessee demonstrates that the vast majority of these infections continue to be under-diagnosed and/or underreported in this region. Persistent prevention and surveillance efforts will be required to reduce exposure to infectious vectors and to detect new cases of infection in this region. Application of this study’s observations in future investigations will enhance the quantification of incidence risk and the identification of high-risk groups within the population.

The Survey of H5N1 Flu Virus in Wild Birds in 14 Provinces of China from 2004 to 2007:

The highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza emerged in the year 1996 in Asia, and has spread to Europe and Africa recently. At present, effective monitoring and data analysis of H5N1 are not sufficient in Chinese mainland. During the period from April of 2004 to August of 2007, we collected 14,472 wild bird samples covering 56 species of 10 orders in 14 provinces of China and monitored the prevalence of flu virus based on RT-PCR specific for H5N1 subtype. The 149 positive samples involved six orders. Anseriformes had the highest prevalence while Passeriformes had the lowest prevalence (2.70% versus 0.36%). Among the 24 positive species, mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) had the highest prevalence (4.37%). A difference of prevalence was found among 14 provinces. Qinghai had a higher prevalence than the other 13 provinces combined (3.88% versus 0.43%). The prevalence in three species in Qinghai province (Pintail (Anas acuta), Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)) were obviously higher than those in other 13 provinces. The results of sequence analysis indicated that the 17 strains isolated from wild birds were distributed in five clades (2.3.1, 2.2, 2.5, 6, and 7), which suggested that genetic diversity existed among H5N1 viruses isolated from wild birds. The five isolates from Qinghai came from one clade (2.2) and had a short evolutionary distance with the isolates obtained from Qinghai in the year 2005. We have measured the prevalence of H5N1 virus in 56 species of wild birds in 14 provinces of China. Continuous monitoring in the field should be carried out to know whether H5N1 virus can be maintained by wild birds.

Genetic Ancestry, Social Classification, and Racial Inequalities in Blood Pressure in Southeastern Puerto Rico:

The role of race in human genetics and biomedical research is among the most contested issues in science. Much debate centers on the relative importance of genetic versus sociocultural factors in explaining racial inequalities in health. However, few studies integrate genetic and sociocultural data to test competing explanations directly. We draw on ethnographic, epidemiologic, and genetic data collected in southeastern Puerto Rico to isolate two distinct variables for which race is often used as a proxy: genetic ancestry versus social classification. We show that color, an aspect of social classification based on the culturally defined meaning of race in Puerto Rico, better predicts blood pressure than does a genetic-based estimate of continental ancestry. We also find that incorporating sociocultural variables reveals a new and significant association between a candidate gene polymorphism for hypertension (α2C adrenergic receptor deletion) and blood pressure. This study addresses the recognized need to measure both genetic and sociocultural factors in research on racial inequalities in health. Our preliminary results provide the most direct evidence to date that previously reported associations between genetic ancestry and health may be attributable to sociocultural factors related to race and racism, rather than to functional genetic differences between racially defined groups. Our results also imply that including sociocultural variables in future research may improve our ability to detect significant allele-phenotype associations. Thus, measuring sociocultural factors related to race may both empower future genetic association studies and help to clarify the biological consequences of social inequalities.

Ancient Leishmaniasis in a Highland Desert of Northern Chile:

Leishmaniasis is an infectious disease endemic today in many areas of South America. We discovered morphologic and molecular evidence of ancient infections in 4 female skulls in the archaeological cemetery of Coyo Oriente, in the desert of San Pedro de Atacama, Northern Chile. The boney facial lesions visible in the skulls could have been caused by a number of chronic infections including chronic Leishmaniasis. This diagnosis was confirmed using PCR-sequenced analyses of bone fragments from the skulls of the affected individuals.Leishmaniasis is not normally found in the high-altitude desert of Northern Chile; where the harsh climate does not allow the parasite to complete its life cycle. The presence of Leishmaniasis in ancient skulls from the region implies infection by the protozoan in an endemic area-likely, in our subjects, to have been the lowlands of North-Eastern Argentina or in Southern Bolivia. We propose that the presence of the disease in ancient times in the high altitude desert of San Pedro de Atacama is the result of an exogamic system of patrilocal marriages, where women from different cultures followed their husbands to their ancestral homes, allowing immigrant women, infected early in life, to be incorporated in the Atacama desert society before they became disfigured by the disease. The present globalization of goods and services and the extraordinary facile movement of people across borders and continents have lead to a resurgence of infectious diseases and re-emergence of infections such as Leishmaniasis. We show here that such factors were already present millennia ago, shaping demographic trends and the epidemiology of infections just as they do today.

Synthetic Morphology Using Alternative Inputs:

Designing the shape and size of a cell is an interesting challenge for synthetic biology. Prolonged exposure to the mating pheromone α-factor induces an unusual morphology in yeast cells: multiple mating projections. The goal of this work was to reproduce the multiple projections phenotype in the absence of α-factor using a gain-of-function approach termed “Alternative Inputs (AIs)”. An alternative input is defined as any genetic manipulation that can activate the signaling pathway instead of the natural input. Interestingly, none of the alternative inputs were sufficient to produce multiple projections although some produced a single projection. Then, we extended our search by creating all combinations of alternative inputs and deletions that were summarized in an AIs-Deletions matrix. We found a genetic manipulation (AI-Ste5p ste2Δ) that enhanced the formation of multiple projections. Following up this lead, we demonstrated that AI-Ste4p and AI-Ste5p were sufficient to produce multiple projections when combined. Further, we showed that overexpression of a membrane-targeted form of Ste5p alone could also induce multiple projections. Thus, we successfully re-engineered the multiple projections mating morphology using alternative inputs without α-factor.

Ghostwriting: The Dirty Little Secret of Medical Publishing That Just Got Bigger:

If you are an editor, author, reviewer, or reader of medical journals, or if you depend on your doctor or health care provider getting unbiased information from medical journals, then the 1,500 documents now hosted on the PLoS Medicine Web site [1] should make you very concerned and angry. Because, quite simply, the story told in these documents amounts to one of the most compelling expositions ever seen of the systematic manipulation and abuse of scholarly publishing by the pharmaceutical industry and its commercial partners in their attempt to influence the health care decisions of physicians and the general public.

Species Tree Inference by Minimizing Deep Coalescences:

Inferring the evolutionary history of a set of species, known as the species tree, is a task of utmost significance in biology and beyond. The traditional approach to accomplishing this task from molecular sequences entails sequencing a gene in the set of species under consideration, reconstructing the gene’s evolutionary history, and declaring it to be the species tree. However, recent analyses of multiple gene data sets, made available thanks to advances in sequencing technologies, have indicated that gene trees in the same group of species may disagree with each other, as well as with the species tree. Therefore, the development of methods for inferring the species tree despite such disagreements is imperative.
In this paper, we propose such a method, which seeks the tree that minimizes the amount of disagreement between the input set of gene trees and the inferred one. We have implemented our method and studied its performance, in terms of accuracy and computational efficiency, on two biological data sets and a large number of simulated data sets. Our analyses, of both the biological and synthetic data sets, indicate high accuracy of the method, as well as computationally efficient solutions in practice. Hence, our method makes a good candidate for inferring accurate species trees, despite gene tree disagreements, at a genomic scale.

The Evolutionary Origin of Man Can Be Traced in the Layers of Defunct Ancestral Alpha Satellites Flanking the Active Centromeres of Human Chromosomes:

The primate centromere evolves by amplification of alpha satellite sequences in its inner core, which expands and moves the peripheral sequences sideways, forming layers of different age in the “pericentromeric” area. The expanding centromere model poses two main questions: (1) whether the succession of layers is symmetrical on both sides of the centromere, and (2) whether different chromosomes share the same layers. We have analyzed and dated the layers on both sides of human chromosomes 8, 17, and X and shown that they were largely symmetrical on one chromosome and largely shared and arranged similarly in non-homologous chromosomes. The layer pattern revealed that genome-wide waves of expansion of new satellite variants have occurred repeatedly in the human evolutionary lineage. The layers which are likely to be the relic centromeres of our common ancestors with primate taxa follow each other in chronological order. The two layers that do not match any living primate indicate the two completely extinct ancestral taxa aged 26-40 and 18-23 million years. These could be Propliopithecidae (Cathopitecus and Egyptopithecus) and Pliopithecidae (Proconsul), aged 33-35 and 17-27 million years, respectively. The possibility to reveal and date extinct ancestors makes the analysis of satellite layers a unique tool for the reconstruction of primate phylogeny.

Dynamics of Socioeconomic Risk Factors for Neglected Tropical Diseases and Malaria in an Armed Conflict:

Armed conflict and war and infectious diseases are globally among the leading causes of human suffering and premature death. Moreover, they are closely interlinked, as an adverse public health situation may spur violent conflict, and violent conflict may favor the spread of infectious diseases. The consequences of this vicious cycle are increasingly borne by civilians, often as a hidden and hence neglected burden. We analyzed household data that were collected before and after an armed conflict in a rural part of western Côte d’Ivoire, and investigated the dynamics of socioeconomic risk factors for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and malaria. We identified a worsening of the sanitation infrastructure, decreasing use of protective measures against mosquito bites, and increasing difficulties to reach public health care infrastructure. In contrast, household crowding, the availability of soap, and the accessibility of comparatively simple means of health care provision (e.g., traditional healers and community health workers) seemed to be more stable. Knowledge about such dynamics may help to increase crisis-proofness of critical infrastructure and public health systems, and hence mitigate human suffering due to armed conflict and war.

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