New and Exciting in PLoS this week

Four of the seven PLoS journals published today. Let’s take a look.
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:

Male Accessory Gland Protein Reduces Egg Laying in a Simultaneous Hermaphrodite:

Seminal fluid is an important part of the ejaculate of internally fertilizing animals. This fluid contains substances that nourish and activate sperm for successful fertilization. Additionally, it contains components that influence female physiology to further enhance fertilization success of the sperm donor, possibly beyond the recipient’s optimum. Although evidence for such substances abounds, few studies have unraveled their identities, and focus has been exclusively on separate-sex species. We present the first detailed study into the seminal fluid composition of a hermaphrodite (Lymnaea stagnalis). Eight novel peptides and proteins were identified from the seminal-fluid-producing prostate gland and tested for effects on oviposition, hatching and consumption. The gene for the protein found to suppress egg mass production, Ovipostatin, was sequenced, thereby providing the first fully-characterized seminal fluid substance in a simultaneous hermaphrodite. Thus, seminal fluid peptides and proteins have evolved and can play a crucial role in sexual selection even when the sexes are combined.

Measuring Under-Five Mortality: Validation of New Low-Cost Methods:

There has been increasing interest in measuring under-five mortality as a health indicator and as a critical measure of human development. In countries with complete vital registration systems that capture all births and deaths, under-five mortality can be directly calculated. In the absence of a complete vital registration system, however, child mortality must be estimated using surveys that ask women to report the births and deaths of their children. Two survey methods exist for capturing this information: summary birth histories and complete birth histories. A summary birth history requires a minimum of only two questions: how many live births has each mother had and how many of them have survived. Indirect methods are then applied using the information from these two questions and the age of the mother to estimate under-five mortality going back in time prior to the survey. Estimates generated from complete birth histories are viewed as the most accurate when surveys are required to estimate under-five mortality, especially for the most recent time periods. However, it is much more costly and labor intensive to collect these detailed data, especially for the purpose of generating small area estimates. As a result, there is a demand for improvement of the methods employing summary birth history data to produce more accurate as well as subnational estimates of child mortality.

A Novel Potassium Channel in Photosynthetic Cyanobacteria:

Elucidation of the structure-function relationship of a small number of prokaryotic ion channels characterized so far greatly contributed to our knowledge on basic mechanisms of ion conduction. We identified a new potassium channel (SynK) in the genome of the cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC6803, a photosynthetic model organism. SynK, when expressed in a K+-uptake-system deficient E.coli strain, was able to recover growth of these organisms. The protein functions as a potassium selective ion channel when expressed in Chinese Hamster Ovary cells. The location of SynK in cyanobacteria in both thylakoid and plasmamembranes was revealed by immunogold electron microscopy and Western blotting of isolated membrane fractions. SynK seems to be conserved during evolution, giving rise to a TPK (two-pore K+ channel) family member which is shown here to be located in the thylakoid membrane of Arabidopsis. Our work characterizes a novel cyanobacterial potassium channel and indicates the molecular nature of the first higher plant thylakoid cation channel, opening the way to functional studies.

Measuring Adult Mortality Using Sibling Survival: A New Analytical Method and New Results for 44 Countries, 1974-2006:

For several decades, global public health efforts have focused on the development and application of disease control programs to improve child survival in developing populations. The need to reliably monitor the impact of such intervention programs in countries has led to significant advances in demographic methods and data sources, particularly with large-scale, cross-national survey programs such as the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). Although no comparable effort has been undertaken for adult mortality, the availability of large datasets with information on adult survival from censuses and household surveys offers an important opportunity to dramatically improve our knowledge about levels and trends in adult mortality in countries without good vital registration. To date, attempts to measure adult mortality from questions in censuses and surveys have generally led to implausibly low levels of adult mortality owing to biases inherent in survey data such as survival and recall bias. Recent methodological developments and the increasing availability of large surveys with information on sibling survival suggest that it may well be timely to reassess the pessimism that has prevailed around the use of sibling histories to measure adult mortality.

Using the Prevalence of Individual Species of Intestinal Nematode Worms to Estimate the Combined Prevalence of Any Species:

Mixed infections with roundworm, whipworm and hookworm are common, but survey reports often give only the separate prevalence of each type. However, the combined prevalence is important to estimate accurately the number of individuals who would benefit from control programmes and to make decisions about the frequency of treatment. Previous work suggests that mixed infections involving hookworm occur randomly, but that roundworm and whipworm infections are found together more frequently than would be expected by chance. We used 63 data sets from community surveys that reported both the proportions infected with individual types of worms and the combined proportion infected with any worm. We then calculated the proportion that would be infected with any type of worm if infections had occurred randomly and compared it with the observed combined proportion infected. We found a strong correlation between the observed and predicted combined proportions infected. A small downward correction of the predicted proportion infected by dividing by a factor of 1.06 brought it to a value that nearly equalled the observed proportion infected almost all the time. This simple model could be applied to published survey data to estimate accurately the number of individuals that would benefit from mass deworming.

What Can We Conclude from Death Registration? Improved Methods for Evaluating Completeness:

One of the fundamental building blocks for determining the burden of disease in populations is to reliably measure the level and pattern of mortality by age and sex. Where well-functioning registration systems exist, this task is relatively straightforward. Results from many civil registration systems, however, remain uncertain because of a lack of confidence in the completeness of death registration. Incomplete registration systems mean not all deaths are counted, and resulting estimates of death rates for the population are then underestimated. Death distribution methods (DDMs) are a suite of demographic methods that attempt to estimate the fraction of deaths that are registered and counted by the civil registration system. Although widely applied and used, the methods have at least three types of limitations. First, a wide range of variants of these methods has been applied in practice with little scientific literature to guide their selection. Second, the methods have not been extensively validated in real population conditions where violations of the assumptions of the methods most certainly occur. Third, DDMs do not generate uncertainty intervals.

An Excitatory Loop with Astrocytes Contributes to Drive Neurons to Seizure Threshold:

In focal epilepsy, seizures are generated by a localized, synchronous neuronal electrical discharge that may spread to large portions of the brain. Despite intense experimental research in this field, a key question relevant to the human epilepsy condition remains completely unanswered: what are the cellular events that lead to the onset of a seizure in the first place? In various in vitro models of seizures using rodent brain slices, we simultaneously recorded neuronal firing and Ca2+ signals both from neurons and from astrocytes, the principal population of glial cells in the brain. We found that activation of astrocytes by neuronal activity and signalling from astrocytes back to neurons contribute to the initiation of a focal seizure. This reciprocal excitatory loop between neurons and astrocytes represents a new mechanism in the pathophysiology of epilepsy that should be considered by those aiming to develop more effective therapies for epilepsies that are not controlled by currently available treatments.

Mortality Measurement Matters: Improving Data Collection and Estimation Methods for Child and Adult Mortality:

The accurate measurement and estimation of mortality levels, trends, causes, and differentials are a cornerstone of public health. Child and adult mortality rates, often summarized in a life expectancy measure, are key indicators of levels of health and development. The preferred source of mortality data is prospective measurement through continuous registration of deaths, as is done in civil registration systems. But in many countries, especially those with poorly developed statistical systems and higher levels of mortality, retrospective measurement in households and surveys is the principal vehicle for data collection. All methods of data collection suffer from two generic problems: omission of events and dating errors. During the past few decades, demographers have developed and used a range of methods to improve data collection, assess levels of bias, and correct for such biases [1]-[3]. In three papers published in this issue of PLoS Medicine [4]-[6], Murray, Rajaratnam and colleagues revisit these analytical methods and techniques and present improved methods for the analysis of mortality data collected through death registration, censuses, or household surveys.

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