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.
New Jurassic parasite is a bizarre find
The fossilised remains of a new species of insect has been discovered, whose larvae feasted on salamander blood way back when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. The species of fly, named Qiyzia jurassica after the Chinese word for bizarre, was discovered from samples unearthed in Inner Mongolia, and displayed some distinctly unusual morphological features. Thought to be the only insect larva ever identified with a leech-like sucker on its body, this feature would have provided a firm grip whilst feeding on its slippery salamander host. Until now, the only other ectoparasites identified from this era were giant fleas that fed on dinosaurs, suggesting that parasite diversity at this time was likely much greater than previously thought.
Chen et al. eLife
The noncoding RNAs that defy their name
An extensive analysis of previously unannotated transcripts in yeast demonstrates that, contrary to expectations, many appear to have the capacity to code for proteins. Long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) bear a strong similarity to protein coding mRNAs, but are thought to not be translated, instead playing a role as regulators of gene expression. Now, by combining a number of techniques to analyse the ribosome of yeast, researchers from Case Western Reserve University and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in the USA, have found that a large proportion of these RNAs are sensitive to a process called nonsense-mediated RNA decay, known to be dependent on translation. The surprising discovery of this expanded repertoire of expressed genes therefore raises the question of what else might lie as yet undiscovered in the genomes of other more complex organisms than the humble yeast.
Smith et al. Cell Reports
Bees find new land is disease-free
It’s widely known that bees are in crisis. Honeybees in particular have seen dramatic global declines, thought to be due to a combination of impacts from land use changes, pesticides, and disease. Amid all this bad news, wouldn’t it be great to know that there was some kind of refuge for them, away from these many threats? Well, there’s good news. A survey of half of all commercially maintained honeybee colonies in Newfoundland, Canada, finds that this area is free from the parasitic mite Varroa destructor, while molecular techniques could also find no evidence for the detection of the microsporidian fungal parasite Nosema cerenae. Detailed molecular screening also discovered a subset of colonies free from other commercially important diseases like Israeli acute paralysis virus, Kashmir bee virus and sacbrood virus – though other pathogens like deformed wing virus were still present. These populations could therefore prove to be a valuable experimental system for studying disease dynamics in the absence of key pathogens and parasites.
Shutler et al. PLoS One
A strain of gut bacteria all of your own
You probably never give it a thought, but your guts are a complex, diverse ecosystem of microbes. Just a single gram of material in the colon can contain a billion individual bacteria of varying species, each competing with each other as fiercely as in any terrestrial or marine ecosystem. One area in which the analogy ends is horizontal gene transfer – the swapping of genetic material independently of reproduction. This process is widespread among different bacterial strains, contributing to a large proportion of overall diversity, and can also contribute to transfer of important traits such as antibiotic resistance that may not be encoded in conserved genes within the species. However, few studies have investigated these microbial systems in individual human guts. Now, an intensive look at faecal samples from two willing individuals has found evidence of extensive transfers of mobile genetic elements among species of the gut bacteria Bacteroidales, some of which may be involved in increasing the competitive fitness of the recipient strain.
Coyne et al. mBio
How do you measure the surface area of a pigeon?
Cling film is the key. Or really, any kind of polyethylene film. It may seem frivolous, but accurately quantifying the surface area of an animal is important for studies on thermoregulation and metabolism. For example, heat transfer is known to be related to body size, which is why you tend to get larger animals in colder environments. Previous studies in animals have mostly been restricted to the use of dead samples for measuring skin surfaces, restricting investigations to only those animals available to researchers post-mortem. The solution to this problem, facilitating research into live organisms, turns out to be relatively simple – at least for pigeons. By holding a bird gently on its back and tracing the outline of specific parts its anatomy onto polyethylene film, the total surface area can be more accurately determined than by previous methods.
Perez et al. Biology Open
The mobile microbiome
What’s going to be the next big development in mobile phone technology? Well, it might just be something to do with harnessing the potential of the microbial communities that inhabit your skin. Analysis of the microbes left on smartphone touchscreens has revealed a, perhaps unsurprising, link to the microbial communities found on their owner’s skin. Taking swabs from a number of volunteers and their phones, researchers from the University of Oregon find that 22 percent of bacterial taxa present on participants fingers were also present on their phones, although only those found on men’s phones were significantly different from those found on their fingers. In light of this close association between microbial communities of owners and their phones, the authors suggest that there could be untapped potential in using mobile phones as microbial biosensors.
Meadow et al. PeerJ
Written by Simon Harold, Senior Executive Editor for the BMC Series.