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.
Getting to grips with tentacles
What makes an octopus’ suckers suck? Answering this question could lead to the development of an exciting new generation of adhesive materials, able to attach to wet or slippery surfaces. So that’s just what a research team from Italy and Germany attempted when they put some tentacles to the test, and unlocked their mechanical secrets. Scanning the surface of suckers using a micro-CT scanner revealed microscopic grooves on their undersides, increasing the surface contact area when pressure is applied and resulting in a sure-footed grip. Despite this, each sucker is actually amongst one of the softest biological materials known – similar in composition to that of jellyfish. This allows both a tight seal to be formed around the surface to which it adheres, and means that each sucker can be close-packed with its nearest neighbours.
Tramacere et al. Journal of the Royal Society Interface
Neurons are switched on to SUMO
Neurons in the brain communicate with each other via chemical neurotransmitters, the release of which from synapses is under the control of interactions between many different proteins. One of these proteins, called RIM1α, interacts with most proteins in a presynaptic region known as the ‘active zone’, acting as a hub to mediate neurotransmitter release. However, it is not clear how these interactions are regulated within the neuron. Now, a team of biochemists from the UK have identified a protein called SUMO as the molecular switch that mediates this process. By binding to RIM1α, SUMO facilitates the clustering of calcium at channels that allow the release of neurotransmitter-containing vesicles – disruption of which is characteristic of some common neurological disorders.
Girach et al. Cell reports
Beneficial bugs for your beaujolais
The taste of the wine that you drink is strongly influenced by the local microbial communities that interact throughout all stages of the wine-making process. This so-called ‘microbial terroir’ has been identified from a large-scale analysis of more than 250 grape-must samples collected from across California, USA. Results showed that fungi and bacteria on the surface of grapes are associated with regional, varietal and climatic factors – and could therefore contribute to the taste-sensitive qualities of different wines.
Bokulich et al. PNAS
Reproduction is for experts only
Reproducibility is the lynchpin of science. But just how easy is it to reproduce an experiment from the methodological details reported in a research paper? A group of computational biologists asked just that question when they attempted to reproduce the findings from a previously published article attempting to map known drugs to potential receptors in the tuberculosis proteome. Disappointingly, they find that only those researchers with advanced knowledge of the field were able to successfully reproduce the work. They urge researchers and journals alike to do more to enrich current descriptions of the scientific process.
Garijo et al. PLoS One
Wind sweeps livestock virus through Europe
Schmallenberg virus is a particularly costly livestock disease affecting cattle, sheep and goats. The highest risk for farmers comes when pregnant animals become infected, giving birth to malformed or stillborn young. Named after the town in northern Germany where the virus was first identified, it has now spread all over western Europe, transmitted by infected midges. A major new analysis now confirms that prevailing winds have played a large part in facilitating the spread of this European outbreak, with more than 60 percent of explained infections occurring because of downwind movements of infected insects.
Sedda & Rogers, Scientific Reports
A personal touch to prevent vandalism
Adding a personal message to your fieldwork equipment could help prevent it getting wrecked or stolen when left unattended. Researchers from Germany attached three different types of messages to dummy experimental equipment left out in the open, to see which one was best at preventing vandalism. Personalised labels with messages such as “Part of my thesis – Please do not touch” reduced the number of negative incidents by up to 60 percent when compared with neutral messages, or those threatening to contact the police if damaged.
Clarin et al. Methods in Ecology and Evolution
Three-dimensional electron crystallography of protein microcrystals
Electron crystallography is a method that can be used to determine the structures of very small biological molecules in crystalline form. Similar to X-ray crystallography, a beam of electrons is fired into a crystal, and the resulting diffraction pattern recombined to form the macromolecular structure. Using electron beams means that much smaller crystals can be investigated than using the more powerful X-rays, since the beam causes less damage. However, even then only single images can be taken – creating two-dimensional reconstructions – since the election beam also causes damage to crystals. To overcome these limitations, a team of researchers have now come up with a lab-based method to obtain multiple images using a conventional electron cryo-microscope. By reducing the electron beam strength by some 200 times, three-dimensional crystal structures can now be recreated by crystals that were previously too small to be used.
Shi et al. eLife
Written by Simon Harold, Senior Executive Editor for the BMC Series.