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.
A shot in the arm for better flu vaccines
Finding out what genes are involved in mobilising a response to infection seems like a good way of combating infection by disease-causing viruses like the flu, but what if we want to design better treatments when a vaccine already exists? An interdisciplinary team from Texas, USA took an integrative approach to find out. Taking blood samples from patients given the flu vaccine, they identified 20 genes involved in the vaccination response, around half of which were, surprisingly, not directly linked to the immune system.
The little people causing a big stir
In 2003 the remains of a human-like skeleton were found on the remote Indonesian island of Flores, sparking a debate over whether an additional branch needed to be added to the evolutionary tree of humanity. Some argued that the tiny remains represented a wholly new species, shrunken by years of island-dwelling; others claimed that the remains were more likely to represent a modern human suffering from a condition that would cause reduced body size. Now, a new 3D morphometric analysis comparing the Flores skull to those of modern humans suffering from hyperthyroidism and Laron syndrome strongly supports the suggestion that the remains represent a species distinct from ourselves, but closely related to our evolutionary cousins Homo erectus.
“There are too many animal studies with ‘positive’ results”
Animal testing may be the least-worst way for therapeutic interventions to make their way into human use. Ethical concerns and high-costs often mean that large-scale testing of new drugs or treatments may be severely limited, leaving pooled analyses of multiple small-scale studies as the best way of examining the true effect of an intervention. However, this relies on small-scale studies reflecting the true state of the field. A major audit of all published ‘meta-analyses’ on neurological disorders has now revealed widespread biases in how these results are reported, with twice as many studies than expected yielding a positive result. Although alarming, the authors caution that selectivity by publishers should take an equal share of the blame alongside those undertaking the research.
If a frog croaks in the forest does it make a sound?
We may soon be able to find out, with a new automated method for remotely monitoring the acoustics of animals in their natural habitats. A novel combination of solar-powered, field-based sound recorders that feed data back to a web-based analysis system allows users to automatically identify species based on their calls in real time, and has already been used to analyse the vocal patterns of frogs, birds, insects and mammals living in the remote forests of Puerto Rica and Costa Rica.
How to wire a pigeon’s brain
Despite millions of years of evolution in which to diverge, the underlying architecture of bird brains show remarkable similarities to those of mammals – including humans. The first large-scale analysis of circuits in the avian brain found overlapping ‘hub nodes’ in both the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which are involved in memory and decision making.
Targeting chemical communication in bacteria
Although they may seem like relatively simple organisms, some bacteria have complex chemical systems that allow them to communicate over vast scales. Such coordination is achieved through a mechanism known a Quorum sensing. In the marine bacteria Vibrio harveyi for example, huge areas of bioluminescence may be created covering hundreds of square kilometres, using this mechanism. Activation of the pathways involved in coordinating this response are controlled by small RNAs called Qrr-5, of which 16 new targets have now been identified, together with the specific sequence sections involved in target regulation. The findings indicate that these small RNAs can independently regulate target genes through a mechanism that is likely to apply generally across this group of bacteria, which also includes cholera-causing species.
Written by Simon Harold, Senior Executive Editor for the BMC Series.