New and Exciting in PLoS this week

Today, four out of seven PLoS journals published new articles. Here’s my pick of papers I find most interesting and/or bloggable. 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:

Use of Herring Bait to Farm Lobsters in the Gulf of Maine:

Ecologists, fisheries scientists, and coastal managers have all called for an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, yet many species such as the American lobster (Homarus americanus) are still largely managed individually. One hypothesis that has yet to be tested suggests that human augmentation of lobster diets via the use of Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) as bait may contribute to recent increases in lobster landings. Currently 70% of Atlantic herring landings in the Gulf of Maine are used as bait to catch lobsters in traps throughout coastal New England. We examined the effects of this herring bait on the diet composition and growth rate of lobsters at heavily baited vs. seasonally closed (i.e., bait free) sites in coastal Maine. Our results suggest that human use of herring bait may be subsidizing juvenile lobster diets, thereby enhancing lobster growth and the overall economic value and yield of one of the most valuable fisheries in the U.S. Our study illustrates that shifting to an ecosystem approach to fisheries management should require consideration of cross-fishery interactions.

Global Entrainment of Transcriptional Systems to Periodic Inputs:

The activities of living organisms are governed by complex sets of biochemical reactions. Often, entrainment to certain external signals helps control the timing and sequencing of reactions. An important open problem is to understand the onset of entrainment and under what conditions it can be ensured in the presence of uncertainties, noise, and environmental variations. In this paper, we focus mainly on transcriptional systems, modeled by Ordinary Differential Equations. These are basic building blocks for more complex biochemical systems. However, the results that we obtain are of more generality. To illustrate this generality, and to emphasize the use of our techniques in synthetic biology, we discuss the entrainment of a Repressilator circuit and the synchronization of a network of Repressilators. We answer the following two questions: 1) What are the dynamical mechanisms that ensure the entrainment to periodic inputs in transcriptional modules? 2) Starting from natural systems, what properties can be used to design novel synthetic biological circuits that can be entrained? For some biological systems which are always “in contact” with a continuously changing environment, entrainment may be a “desired” property. Thus, answering the above two questions is of fundamental importance. While entrainment may appear obvious at first thought, it is not a generic property of nonlinear dynamical systems. The main result of our paper shows that, even if the transcriptional modules are modeled by nonlinear ODEs, they can be entrained by any (positive) periodic signal. Surprisingly, such a property is preserved if the system parameters are varied: entrainment is obtained independently of the particular biochemical conditions. We prove that combinations of the above transcriptional module also show the same property. Finally, we show how the developed tools can be applied to design synthetic biochemical systems guaranteed to exhibit entrainment.

Integrative Approach to Quality Assessment of Medical Journals Using Impact Factor, Eigenfactor, and Article Influence Scores:

Impact factor (IF) is a commonly used surrogate for assessing the scientific quality of journals and articles. There is growing discontent in the medical community with the use of this quality assessment tool because of its many inherent limitations. To help address such concerns, Eigenfactor (ES) and Article Influence scores (AIS) have been devised to assess scientific impact of journals. The principal aim was to compare the temporal trends in IF, ES, and AIS on the rank order of leading medical journals over time. The 2001 to 2008 IF, ES, AIS, and number of citable items (CI) of 35 leading medical journals were collected from the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) and the databases. The journals were ranked based on the published 2008 ES, AIS, and IF scores. Temporal score trends and variations were analyzed. In general, the AIS and IF values provided similar rank orders. Using ES values resulted in large changes in the rank orders with higher ranking being assigned to journals that publish a large volume of articles. Since 2001, the IF and AIS of most journals increased significantly; however the ES increased in only 51% of the journals in the analysis. Conversely, 26% of journals experienced a downward trend in their ES, while the rest experienced no significant changes (23%). This discordance between temporal trends in IF and ES was largely driven by temporal changes in the number of CI published by the journals. The rank order of medical journals changes depending on whether IF, AIS or ES is used. All of these metrics are sensitive to the number of citable items published by journals. Consumers should thus consider all of these metrics rather than just IF alone in assessing the influence and importance of medical journals in their respective disciplines.

Predicting Odor Pleasantness with an Electronic Nose:

Electronic noses (eNoses) are devices aimed at mimicking animal noses. Typically, these devices contain a set of sensors that generate a pattern representing an odor. Application of eNoses entails first “training” the eNose to a particular odor, and once the eNose has “learned”, it can then be used to detect and identify this odor. Using this approach, eNoses have been tested in applications ranging from disease diagnosis to space-ship interior environmental monitoring. However, in contrast to animal noses, eNoses have not been used to generate information on novel odors they hadn’t learned. Here, rather than train an eNose on particular odorants, we trained an eNose to the perceptual axis of odorant pleasantness. We found that this eNose was then able to generalize and rate the pleasantness of novel odors it never smelled before, and that these ratings were about 80% similar to those of naïve human raters who had not participated in the eNose training phase. Furthermore, the results replicated across cultures without retraining of the device. This result contrasts the popular notion that odorant pleasantness is completely subjective, and may allow for numerous applications, such as an environmental monitor that would warn of malodor regardless of its source.

Whole-Genome SNP Association in the Horse: Identification of a Deletion in Myosin Va Responsible for Lavender Foal Syndrome:

Genetic disorders affect many domesticated species, including the horse. In this study we have focused on Lavender Foal Syndrome, a seizure disorder that leads to suffering and death in foals soon after birth. A recessively inherited disorder, its occurrence is often unpredictable and difficult for horse breeders to avoid without a diagnostic test for carrier status. The recent completion of the horse genome sequence has provided new tools for mapping traits with unprecedented resolution and power. We have applied one such tool, the Equine SNP50 genotyping chip, to a small sample set from horses affected with Lavender Foal Syndrome. A single genetic location associated with the disorder was rapidly identified using this approach. Subsequent sequencing of functional candidate genes in this location revealed a single base deletion that likely causes Lavender Foal Syndrome. From a practical standpoint, this discovery and the development of a diagnostic test for the LFS allele provides a valuable new tool for breeders seeking to avoid the disease in their foal crop. However, this work also illustrates the utility of whole-genome association studies in the horse.

Prion Shedding from Olfactory Neurons into Nasal Secretions:

Prion diseases are fatal neurodegenerative diseases and in ruminants they can be highly contagious, yet the route of transmission among sheep with scrapie or deer with chronic wasting disease is not completely understood. In this study, we examined the hypothesis that prion infection in peripheral neurons that are located at a mucosal surface can result in the release of prion infectivity into bodily secretions. Our findings indicate that prion infection of the olfactory system leads to a high level of infection of olfactory neurons in the sensory epithelium of the nasal cavity, likely by retrograde spread in the olfactory nerve. Prions were also located in the sensory cilia of olfactory neurons and since these structures project into the airway of the nasal cavity, we were able to detect moderate levels of prion infectivity in nasal secretions. These findings demonstrate how prions can disseminate within a host to a peripheral neuron at the mucosa and subsequently release infectivity into bodily fluids. Furthermore, olfactory sensory neurons undergo a continual turnover throughout the adult lifespan and the loss of prion-infected neurons at the olfactory mucosa could also result in continuous shedding of prion infectivity and serve as a mechanism for disease transmission.

Seasonal Synchronization of Influenza in the United States Older Adult Population:

In temperate regions, influenza epidemics occur annually with the highest activity occurring during the winter months. While seasonal dynamics of the influenza virus, such as time of onset and circulating strains, are well documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Influenza Surveillance System, an accurate prediction of timing, magnitude, and composition of circulating strains of seasonal influenza remains elusive. To facilitate public health preparedness for seasonal influenza and to obtain better insights into the spatiotemporal behavior of emerging strains, it is important to develop measurable characteristics of seasonal oscillation and to quantify the relationships between those parameters on a spatial scale. The objectives of our research were to examine the seasonality of influenza on a national and state level as well as the relationship between peak timing and intensity of influenza in the United States older adult population. A total of 248,889 hospitalization records were extracted from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for the influenza seasons 1991-2004. Harmonic regression models were used to quantify the peak timing and absolute intensity for each of the 48 contiguous states and Washington, DC. We found that individual influenza seasons showed spatial synchrony with consistent late or early timing occurring across all 48 states during each influenza season in comparison to the overall average. On a national level, seasons that had an earlier peak also had higher rates of influenza (rs = −0.5). We demonstrated a spatial trend in peak timing of influenza; western states such as Nevada, Utah, and California peaked earlier and New England States such as Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire peaked later. Our findings suggest that a systematic description of influenza seasonal patterns is a valuable tool for disease surveillance and can facilitate strategies for prevention of severe disease in the vulnerable, older adult population.

Motor Learning in Healthy Humans Is Associated to Gray Matter Changes: A Tensor-Based Morphometry Study:

We used tensor-based morphometry (TBM) to: 1) map gray matter (GM) volume changes associated with motor learning in young healthy individuals; 2) evaluate if GM changes persist three months after cessation of motor training; and 3) assess whether the use of different schemes of motor training during the learning phase could lead to volume modifications of specific GM structures. From 31 healthy subjects, motor functional assessment and brain 3D T1-weighted sequence were obtained: before motor training (time 0), at the end of training (two weeks) (time 2), and three months later (time 3). Fifteen subjects (group A) were trained with goal-directed motor sequences, and 16 (group B) with non purposeful motor actions of the right hand. At time 1 vs. time 0, the whole sample of subjects had GM volume increase in regions of the temporo-occipital lobes, inferior parietal lobule (IPL) and middle frontal gyrus, while at time 2 vs. time 1, an increased GM volume in the middle temporal gyrus was seen. At time 1 vs. time 0, compared to group B, group A had a GM volume increase of the hippocampi, while the opposite comparison showed greater GM volume increase in the IPL and insula in group B vs. group A. Motor learning results in structural GM changes of different brain areas which are part of specific neuronal networks and tend to persist after training is stopped. The scheme applied during the learning phase influences the pattern of such structural changes.

Temporal Variability of Human Vaginal Bacteria and Relationship with Bacterial Vaginosis:

Little is known about short-term bacterial fluctuations in the human vagina. This study used PCR to assess the variability in concentrations of key vaginal bacteria in healthy women and the immediate response to antibiotic treatment in women with bacterial vaginosis (BV). Twenty-two women assessed for BV using Amsel’s criteria were evaluated daily for 7 or 14 days, then at 2, 3 and 4 weeks, using a panel of 11 bacterium-specific quantitative PCR assays. Participants with BV were treated with 5 days of intravaginal metronidazole. Participants without BV had vaginal biotas dominated by lactobacilli, whose levels fluctuated with menses. With onset of menstruation, quantities of Lactobacillus jensenii and Lactobacillus crispatus decreased and were found to be inversely related to Gardnerella vaginalis concentrations (p<0.001). Women with BV had a variety of fastidious bacteria whose concentrations dropped below detection thresholds 1-5 days after starting metronidazole. Recurrent BV was characterized by initial profound decreases of BV-associated bacteria after treatment followed by subsequent increases at relapse. The microbiota of the human vagina can be highly dynamic. Healthy women are colonized with Lactobacillus species, but levels can change dramatically over a month. Marked increases in G. vaginalis were observed during menses. Participants with BV have diverse communities of fastidious bacteria that are depleted by vaginal metronidazole therapy. Women with recurrent BV initially respond to antibiotic treatment with steep declines in bacterial concentrations, but these bacteria later reemerge, suggesting that antibiotic resistance in these bacteria is not an important factor mediating BV recurrence.


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