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 the root of how plants find water
If you’re a plant, then finding and exploiting sources of water is pretty crucial to your existence. But sometimes this can be tricky. Localised water availability in soil can be highly variable, and must be gathered as efficiently as possible from the environment. So how do they do it? Using technology called x-ray microscale computed tomography to create 3D reconstructions of root architecture, researchers have been able to peer beneath the soil surface to see exactly what is going on. They find that plant roots are able to distinguish between water and air at extremely small scales – as little as a tenth of a millimetre – and that this is what determines the patterns of root branching along the main root axis; a process they term hydropatterning.
Bao et al. PNAS


European copyright laws hamper progress in biodiversity research
The natural world is a hugely complex interconnected system, the understanding of which could be greatly advanced if our existing knowledge about species names, relationships and natural histories could be integrated into an easily discoverable management system. Progress is currently underway on this in Europe through the pro-iBiosphere project, but access to data is limited because of technical and legal restrictions imposed by different countries. In a multi-lingual review of current legal restrictions across a number of countries, Willi Egloff and colleagues from Plazi, an association supporting developments in openly accessible digital taxonomic literature, highlight the barriers that still need to be overcome in order to fully realise this vision for better management of biodiversity data in the future.
Egloff et al. ZooKeys


Public transport aids public health
Every time you hop on the bus or train, you might just be helping scientists to monitor and mitigate disease transmission. By analysing travel smart card data from Singapore’s bus network during a single week, scientists have been able to recreate a high-resolution physical contact network of  around three million users, in order to better understand how contact between individuals may influence the dynamics of contagious disease outbreaks. Modelling this data from more than one billion individual contact points, the researchers find that reliable data on contacts can be obtained by monitoring only around 0.01 percent of the total population, which could potentially lead to more efficient early-warning detection systems for large cities.
Sun et al. Scientific Reports


Different parents, different cell death
In mammals, developing embryos gain nutrients from the placenta. How much they get depends on the genetic pathways that are switched on when establishing the placental cellular network. But there is an underlying conflict at this stage, depending on the parental origin of the genes expressed. Genes derived from the father will try to increase the availability of nutrients to the embryo, while mothers try to restrict this in order to ensure their own resources are not depleted in the process. Known as genomic imprinting, these mechanism can also affect other developmental processes in the placenta. To investigate how parental origin can influence the pathways of placental cell death, researchers from Italy and Poland looked at placentas from sheep that had begun to develop from only a single parent – derived by reconstructing fertilized germ cells with either paternal or maternal nuclei only. They find that even here, the origins of the different parental genomes can have a dramatic influence on cellular processes. Maternal-origin placentas self-destruct through a mechanism of programmed cell death known as apoptosis, whereas paternal-origin placentas are broken down through the action of enzymes in a process called autophagy.
Ptak et al. Open Biology


Whales lack a sense of taste
Analysis of the taste receptors of toothed and baleen whales reveals that the last common ancestor of these giant marine mammals lost their ability to taste some 36-53 million years ago. Sequencing three sweet/umami and ten bitter taste receptor genes from these creatures revealed  widespread losses of the ability to taste, although salt-sensitive taste receptors still remain functional. This represents the first animal group to be identified as lacking four of the five main taste senses, which is thought to have occurred as a result of dietary shifts within the marine environment.
Feng et al. Genome Biology Evolution


Immune system messages sent to the brain in packages
A new type of immune system signalling has been discovered in which the central nervous system is able to receive immune-related signals from messenger RNA in the blood,  transported via extracellular vesicles. This is in contrast to the more widespread immune-system signalling mechanism derived from cascades of signalling chemicals called cytokines. In this new work, researchers from Germany find that during an inflammatory response, neurons in the central nervous system were obtaining immune-related signals from blood  through a mechanism that could only be derived directly from transport via these vesicle packages, suggesting that nervous system inflammatory response could be even more complex than previously thought.
Ridder et al. PLoS Biology


Written by Simon Harold, Senior Executive Editor for the BMC Series. 


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