New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 28 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:
Breaking the News or Fueling the Epidemic? Temporal Association between News Media Report Volume and Opioid-Related Mortality:

Historical studies of news media have suggested an association between reporting and increased drug abuse. Period effects for substance use have been documented for different classes of legal and illicit substances, with the suspicion that media publicity may have played major roles in their emergence. Previous analyses have drawn primarily from qualitative evidence; the temporal relationship between media reporting volume and adverse health consequences has not been quantified nationally. We set out to explore whether we could find a quantitative relationship between media reports about prescription opioid abuse and overdose mortality associated with these drugs. We assessed whether increases in news media reports occurred before or after increases in overdose deaths. Our ecological study compared a monthly time series of unintentional poisoning deaths involving short-acting prescription opioid substances, from 1999 to 2005 using multiple cause-of-death data published by the National Center for Health Statistics, to monthly counts of English-language news articles mentioning generic and branded names of prescription opioids obtained from Google News Archives from 1999 to 2005. We estimated the association between media volume and mortality rates by time-lagged regression analyses. There were 24,272 articles and 30,916 deaths involving prescription opioids during the seven-year study period. Nationally, the number of articles mentioning prescription opioids increased dramatically starting in early 2001, following prominent coverage about the nonmedical use of OxyContin. We found a significant association between news reports and deaths, with media reporting preceding fatal opioid poisonings by two to six months and explaining 88% (p<0.0001, df 78) of the variation in mortality. While availability, structural, and individual predispositions are key factors influencing substance use, news reporting may enhance the popularity of psychoactive substances. Albeit ecological in nature, our finding suggests the need for further evaluation of the influence of news media on health. Reporting on prescription opioids conforms to historical patterns of news reporting on other psychoactive substances.

Rhesus Monkeys’ Valuation of Vocalizations during a Free-Choice Task:

Adaptive behavior requires that animals integrate current and past information with their decision-making. One important type of information is auditory-communication signals (i.e., species-specific vocalizations). Here, we tested how rhesus monkeys incorporate the opportunity to listen to different species-specific vocalizations into their decision-making processes. In particular, we tested how monkeys value these vocalizations relative to the opportunity to get a juice reward. To test this hypothesis, monkeys chose one of two targets to get a varying juice reward; at one of those targets, in addition to the juice reward, a vocalization was presented. By titrating the juice amounts at the two targets, we quantified the relationship between the monkeys’ juice choices relative to the opportunity to listen to a vocalization. We found that, rhesus were not willing to give up a large juice reward to listen to vocalizations indicating that, relative to a juice reward, listening to vocalizations has a low value.

The Typical Flight Performance of Blowflies: Measuring the Normal Performance Envelope of Calliphora vicina Using a Novel Corner-Cube Arena:

Despite a wealth of evidence demonstrating extraordinary maximal performance, little is known about the routine flight performance of insects. We present a set of techniques for benchmarking performance characteristics of insects in free flight, demonstrated using a model species, and comment on the significance of the performance observed. Free-flying blowflies (Calliphora vicina) were filmed inside a novel mirrored arena comprising a large (1.6 m1.6 m1.6 m) corner-cube reflector using a single high-speed digital video camera (250 or 500 fps). This arrangement permitted accurate reconstruction of the flies’ 3-dimensional trajectories without the need for synchronisation hardware, by virtue of the multiple reflections of a subject within the arena. Image sequences were analysed using custom-written automated tracking software, and processed using a self-calibrating bundle adjustment procedure to determine the subject’s instantaneous 3-dimensional position. We illustrate our method by using these trajectory data to benchmark the routine flight performance envelope of our flies. Flight speeds were most commonly observed between 1.2 ms−1 and 2.3 ms−1, with a maximum of 2.5 ms−1. Our flies tended to dive faster than they climbed, with a maximum descent rate (−2.4 ms−1) almost double the maximum climb rate (1.2 ms−1). Modal turn rate was around 240°s−1, with maximal rates in excess of 1700°s−1. We used the maximal flight performance we observed during normal flight to construct notional physical limits on the blowfly flight envelope, and used the distribution of observations within that notional envelope to postulate behavioural preferences or physiological and anatomical constraints. The flight trajectories we recorded were never steady: rather they were constantly accelerating or decelerating, with maximum tangential accelerations and maximum centripetal accelerations on the order of 3 g.

In-Group Conformity Sustains Different Foraging Traditions in Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus apella):

Decades of research have revealed rich cultural repertoires encompassing multiple traditions in wild great apes, a picture crucially complemented by experimental simulations with captive apes. Studies with wild capuchin monkeys, the most encephalized simian species, have indicated a New World convergence on these cultural phenomena, involving multiple traditions and tool use. However, experimental studies to date are in conflict with such findings in concluding that capuchins, like other monkeys, show minimal capacities for social learning. Here we report a new experimental approach in which the alpha male of each of two groups of capuchins was trained to open an artificial foraging device in a quite different way, using either a slide or lift action, then reunited with his group. In each group a majority of monkeys, 8 of 11 and 13 of 14, subsequently mastered the task. Seventeen of the successful 21 monkeys discovered the alternative action to that seeded in the group, performing it a median of 4 times. Nevertheless, all 21 primarily adopted the technique seeded by their group’s alpha male. Median proportions of slide versus lift were 0.96 for the group seeded with slide versus 0. 01 for the group seeded with lift. These results suggest a striking effect of social conformity in learned behavioral techniques, consistent with field reports of capuchin traditions and convergent on the only other species in which such cultural phenomena have been reported, chimpanzees and humans.

The Real maccoyii: Identifying Tuna Sushi with DNA Barcodes – Contrasting Characteristic Attributes and Genetic Distances:

The use of DNA barcodes for the identification of described species is one of the least controversial and most promising applications of barcoding. There is no consensus, however, as to what constitutes an appropriate identification standard and most barcoding efforts simply attempt to pair a query sequence with reference sequences and deem identification successful if it falls within the bounds of some pre-established cutoffs using genetic distance. Since the Renaissance, however, most biological classification schemes have relied on the use of diagnostic characters to identify and place species. Here we developed a cytochrome c oxidase subunit I character-based key for the identification of all tuna species of the genus Thunnus, and compared its performance with distance-based measures for identification of 68 samples of tuna sushi purchased from 31 restaurants in Manhattan (New York City) and Denver, Colorado. Both the character-based key and GenBank BLAST successfully identified 100% of the tuna samples, while the Barcode of Life Database (BOLD) as well as genetic distance thresholds, and neighbor-joining phylogenetic tree building performed poorly in terms of species identification. A piece of tuna sushi has the potential to be an endangered species, a fraud, or a health hazard. All three of these cases were uncovered in this study. Nineteen restaurant establishments were unable to clarify or misrepresented what species they sold. Five out of nine samples sold as a variant of “white tuna” were not albacore (T. alalunga), but escolar (Lepidocybium flavorunneum), a gempylid species banned for sale in Italy and Japan due to health concerns. Nineteen samples were northern bluefin tuna (T. thynnus) or the critically endangered southern bluefin tuna (T. maccoyii), though nine restaurants that sold these species did not state these species on their menus. The Convention on International Trade Endangered Species (CITES) requires that listed species must be identifiable in trade. This research fulfills this requirement for tuna, and supports the nomination of northern bluefin tuna for CITES listing in 2010.

Nestedness of Ectoparasite-Vertebrate Host Networks:

Determining the structure of ectoparasite-host networks will enable disease ecologists to better understand and predict the spread of vector-borne diseases. If these networks have consistent properties, then studying the structure of well-understood networks could lead to extrapolation of these properties to others, including those that support emerging pathogens. Borrowing a quantitative measure of network structure from studies of mutualistic relationships between plants and their pollinators, we analyzed 29 ectoparasite-vertebrate host networks–including three derived from molecular bloodmeal analysis of mosquito feeding patterns–using measures of nestedness to identify non-random interactions among species. We found significant nestedness in ectoparasite-vertebrate host lists for habitats ranging from tropical rainforests to polar environments. These networks showed non-random patterns of nesting, and did not differ significantly from published estimates of nestedness from mutualistic networks. Mutualistic and antagonistic networks appear to be organized similarly, with generalized ectoparasites interacting with hosts that attract many ectoparasites and more specialized ectoparasites usually interacting with these same “generalized” hosts. This finding has implications for understanding the network dynamics of vector-born pathogens. We suggest that nestedness (rather than random ectoparasite-host associations) can allow rapid transfer of pathogens throughout a network, and expand upon such concepts as the dilution effect, bridge vectors, and host switching in the context of nested ectoparasite-vertebrate host networks.

Mutations in H5N1 Influenza Virus Hemagglutinin that Confer Binding to Human Tracheal Airway Epithelium:

The emergence in 2009 of a swine-origin H1N1 influenza virus as the first pandemic of the 21st Century is a timely reminder of the international public health impact of influenza viruses, even those associated with mild disease. The widespread distribution of highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus in the avian population has spawned concern that it may give rise to a human influenza pandemic. The mortality rate associated with occasional human infection by H5N1 virus approximates 60%, suggesting that an H5N1 pandemic would be devastating to global health and economy. To date, the H5N1 virus has not acquired the propensity to transmit efficiently between humans. The reasons behind this are unclear, especially given the high mutation rate associated with influenza virus replication. Here we used a panel of recombinant H5 hemagglutinin (HA) variants to demonstrate the potential for H5 HA to bind human airway epithelium, the predominant target tissue for influenza virus infection and spread. While parental H5 HA exhibited limited binding to human tracheal epithelium, introduction of selected mutations converted the binding profile to that of a current human influenza strain HA. Strikingly, these amino-acid changes required multiple simultaneous mutations in the genomes of naturally occurring H5 isolates. Moreover, H5 HAs bearing intermediate sequences failed to bind airway tissues and likely represent mutations that are an evolutionary “dead end.” We conclude that, although genetic changes that adapt H5 to human airways can be demonstrated, they may not readily arise during natural virus replication. This genetic barrier limits the likelihood that current H5 viruses will originate a human pandemic.

Genetic Variation and Recent Positive Selection in Worldwide Human Populations: Evidence from Nearly 1 Million SNPs:

Genome-wide scans of hundreds of thousands of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) have resulted in the identification of new susceptibility variants to common diseases and are providing new insights into the genetic structure and relationships of human populations. Moreover, genome-wide data can be used to search for signals of recent positive selection, thereby providing new insights into the genetic adaptations that occurred as modern humans spread out of Africa and around the world. We genotyped approximately 500,000 SNPs in 255 individuals (5 individuals from each of 51 worldwide populations) from the Human Genome Diversity Panel (HGDP-CEPH). When merged with non-overlapping SNPs typed previously in 250 of these same individuals, the resulting data consist of over 950,000 SNPs. We then analyzed the genetic relationships and ancestry of individuals without assigning them to populations, and we also identified candidate regions of recent positive selection at both the population and regional (continental) level. Our analyses both confirm and extend previous studies; in particular, we highlight the impact of various dispersals, and the role of substructure in Africa, on human genetic diversity. We also identified several novel candidate regions for recent positive selection, and a gene ontology (GO) analysis identified several GO groups that were significantly enriched for such candidate genes, including immunity and defense related genes, sensory perception genes, membrane proteins, signal receptors, lipid binding/metabolism genes, and genes involved in the nervous system. Among the novel candidate genes identified are two genes involved in the thyroid hormone pathway that show signals of selection in African Pygmies that may be related to their short stature.

Extrapair Paternity and Maternity in the Three-Toed Woodpecker, Picoides tridactylus: Insights from Microsatellite-Based Parentage Analysis:

Molecular techniques have revealed that avian mating systems are more diverse and complex than previously thought. We used microsatellite markers to determine genetic parentage, the prevalence of extrapair paternity and quasi-parasitism (i.e. situations where a male’s extrapair mate lay in his nest) in a socially monogamous population of three-toed woodpeckers (Picoides tridactylus) in southern Finland. A total of 129 adults and nestlings, representing 5-9 families annually from 2004-2007, were genotyped at up to ten microsatellite loci. The results of genetic assignment tests confirmed that monogamous parentage characterized the majority (84.6%, 22/26) of broods, and that most (93.8%, 75/80) nestlings were the offspring of their social parents. Two of 80 nestlings (2.5%) in two of 26 broods (7.7%) were sired by extrapair males and quasi-parasitism occurred in 3.8% (3/80) of nestlings and 7.7% (2/26) of broods. Hence, the levels of extrapair parentage were low, possibly because both genetic polygyny and polyandry are constrained by the high paternal effort required for parental care. The co-occurrence of low levels of extrapair paternity and quasi-parasitism are discussed in light of ecological and behavioural factors characterizing the species biology.

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