Open Reading Frame brings together a selection of recent publication highlights from elsewhere in the open access ecosystem. This week we take a look at the past few weeks in biology.
Plants pick up good vibrations when insects attack
Plants are able to prime their defences in preparation for insect attack, simply by listening in to the sound of chewing. When subjected to vibrations at the same frequency as those produced when caterpillars are feeding on leaves, the model plant species Arabidopsis thaliana primes itself for an assault by mobilising more defensive chemical compounds like glucosinolate and anthocyanin in its leaves. Researchers measured these feeding frequencies using a technique called laser Doppler vibrometry, recording caterpillars as they fed and then playing these recordings back to plants in an experimental treatment group. The defensive measures elicited by the plants appear to be specific to the sound of feeding, as comparison treatments using recordings of the wind or insect song elicited no such response.
Appel & Cocroft. Oecologia
Absence of evidence for Yetis, but is it evidence of absence?
It’s bad news for cryptozoologists, as a new analysis of hair samples thought to belong to the mythical Yeti finds no evidence that they do. After issuing a ‘call for samples’, an international team of researchers lead by Brian Sykes of the University of Oxford, UK, recovered the DNA sequences of 37 hair samples and compared them with currently available sequences from extant taxa. Having already discarded a number of samples as being either plant material or glass fibres, the team finds that, with the exception of two samples, the provenance of all the hairs could be attributed to species currently alive today, mostly from domesticated animals like dogs. Intriguingly, of the two remaining samples, the closest match found was to that of a fossil sample from a polar bear dated to 40 000 years ago, but not modern members of the species. Although the authors acknowledge that this does not rule out the possibility of undiscovered primate species such as the fabled Yeti, they point out that this work serves to dispel any ambiguity over the identity of samples once thought to be attributable to undiscovered creatures.
Sykes et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Structural secrets behind a fluorescent protein’s glow
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of green fluorescent proteins in the biological sciences. Since being isolated from jellyfish in the 1960’s, this group of proteins – so called because they glow bright green when exposed to UV light – have been a ubiquitous part of molecular biology and biotechnology as expression reporters. Efforts over the ensuing years to tweak the structure of these naturally-occurring proteins to create different colours and varying intensities of fluorescence now mean that there are a huge variety of hues available in the molecular toolbox. The latest update to this has come from an entirely different marine organism, in the form of the fish Amphioxus. This species, also known as the Lancelet, will be more familiar to evolutionary biologists, as it displays characteristics of early vertebrate development. However, its biological importance has now been enhanced further by the discovery of the largest set of green fluorescent proteins of any species. Among these, one protein called bfloGFPa1 is the brightest ever identified, yielding a fluorescence of 100 percent quantum efficiency (the number of incident photons converted to electron-energy). Comparing this protein to the least-bright of the group, researchers find that small changes in the structural features of each can have large consequences for their interactions with incident light.
Bomati et al. Scientific Reports
Patterns of productivity in people with persistent publications
How many scientists do you think have been able to publish something every year for the last 16 years? It’s probably not as many as you might think. Analysis of the entire Scopus database of more than 15 million publishing scientists reveals that less than 1 percent have published something at least once a year during the period 1996-2011. Although this may seem small, their combined citation impact is anything but. During this period, these scientists had their names attributed to more than 40 percent of all published articles, including articles with the largest number of citations. Of those articles achieving more than 1000 citations each, this group of regular-publishing scientist authored almost 90 percent of the total. Although this new analysis isn’t able to evaluate whether a highly concentrated core of publishing scientists creates true research impact, it raises important questions about whether the current status quo represents the best system for efficient scientific progress.
Ioannidis et al. PLoS One
The mantis shrimp with complex biological sunglasses
The most complex example of ‘spectral filtering’, where different wavelengths of light are masked before reaching the retina, has been identified in a species of shrimp. Mantis shrimp are fearsome predators of tropical waters that use their powerful front claws to stun prey. Key to their success in an accurate strike is a highly-developed visual system, which may also play a role in signalling and communication. Analysis of the visual system of a species called Neogonodactylus oerstedii has delved a little deeper into the intricacies of the system, finding that although only two types of UV pigment are found in the creature’s retina, the spectral sensitivity of their visual system is greatly enhanced by having four different types of optical filters on their eyes, increasing the total number of receptor types to six. Although these additional filters act as a form of biological sunglasses of differing shades and tints, the composition of the pigments used is actually much closer to that of biological sunscreens used by other organisms. Known as mycosporine-like amino acid pigments, they are more usually found in marine creatures such a dinoflagellate plankton, where they protect against the damaging effects of UV.
Bok et al. Current Biology
Schools key to the spread of pandemic flu
An epidemiological analysis of the spread of the 2009 influenza pandemic in the US has pinpointed schools as major hotspots of disease transmission and spread. Using data obtained from weekly physician diagnoses at 271 locations across the country, researchers have been able to construct a fine-grained model of the time course of disease spread from its source in the south-east. They find that the three months it took to spread across the country was relatively slow, although increased transmission rates were observed at times when schools were in session. These findings contrast with previous models of influenza spread that gave greater weight to environmental factors in influencing the course of a pandemic, and could lead to better public health measures to limit the spread of future pandemics.
Gog et al. PLoS Computational Biology
Written by Simon Harold, Senior Executive Editor for the BMC Series.