Stein, Tankard, Pint, Boot: Different beer glasses affect drinking speed

As we enter the Labor Day holiday weekend here in the US, many Americans will probably be celebrating with a beer (or two). Before the barbeques start, though, it may be worth considering a recent paper showing that the shape of your beer glass can influence how quickly (and potentially how much) you drink.

The paper, authored by a team from University of Bristol led by psychologist Dr. Angela Attwood, reports that study participants who drank from a straight glass finished their beer 60% more slowly than those drinking from a curved glass. The cause is unknown, but the researchers write that it may be perceptual.

With curved glasses, the subjects estimated the halfway point to be lower than it actually was. The perception of the halfway point of the straight glass was also incorrect, but the discrepancy was less. In other words, the drinkers had to drink more out of the curved glass than the straight glass to get to the perceived halfway mark. If they were pacing themselves, their benchmark for doing so was worse for the curved glass than the straight glass, resulting in overall faster drinking for those using the curved glasses.

This interpretation assumes that the participants were in fact monitoring their drinking, either consciously or subconsciously, based on how much they thought they had left. Such pacing was not shown in the current study, but there are a few additional suggestive pieces of the puzzle: when the participants were given half-filled glasses, or when beer was replaced with soda, they drank from both types of glasses at the same rate, providing support for the perceptual hypothesis.

The researchers did not, however, address the effects of drinking out of a can, bottle, or one of those fancy Belgian chalices, so you may have to do some of your own experiments too.

Citation: Attwood AS, Scott-Samuel NE, Stothart G, Munafò MR (2012) Glass Shape Influences Consumption Rate for Alcoholic Beverages. PLoS ONE 7(8): e43007. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043007

Image source: darren-johnson on Flickr

PLOS ONE Launches Synthetic Biology Collection

Today PLOS ONE is happy to announce the launch of the Synthetic Biology Collection, including over 50 papers published in the last six years that illustrate the many facets of this dynamically evolving research area.

Synthetic biology is an innovative emerging field that exists at the intersection of many traditional disciplines, including biology, chemistry, and engineering, with aims to create biological systems that can be programmed to do useful things like produce drugs or biofuels, among other applications. Despite its potential, the heavily interdisciplinary nature of the research can make it difficult to publish in traditional discipline-specific journals.

However, PLOS ONE’s broad scope allows for the publication of work crossing many traditional research boundaries, making it an ideal venue for many different types of synthetic biology research. For example, the papers in the collection cover topics including DNA synthesis and assembly, standardized biological “parts” akin to interchangeable mechanical parts, protein engineering, and complex network and pathway analysis and modeling, as described in the Collection Overview written by collection editors Jean Peccoud of Virginia Tech and Mark Isalan of the Centre for Genomic Regulation.

The Collection has roots in PLOS ONE’s very first issue, which included two publications from the field. Since then, the number of synthetic biology articles published in the journal has grown steadily. The collection launched today highlights selected synthetic biology articles published in PLOS ONE since 2006, and it is intended to be a growing resource that will be updated regularly with new papers as the field continues to grow and develop.

Collection Citation: Synthetic Biology (2012) PLOS Collections: http://www.ploscollections.org/syntheticbiology

Image Credit: Ivan Morozov (Virginia Bioinformatics Institute)


Anxiety, exhaustion, and telomeres

It seems like just about everyone these days is stressed out and working too hard. We know it’s not good for us, but how bad is it really?

It might be worse than we’d like to think. Today, PLoS ONE published two separate studies investigating how anxiety and work-related exhaustion are correlated to the length of our telomeres, the protective caps on our chromosomes that help make sure our dividing cells have all the genetic material they need for long, healthy lives.

The short answer: both higher stress and severe exhaustion were found to be correlated with decreased telomere length, with potential implications for aging and long-term health. It’s important to note that the results are only correlative, and don’t show any causation, but they add to a suggestive and growing body of literature in this area.

Telomeres are the portions at the ends of our chromosomes, the packaged-up version of all of our DNA, which are critical for proper cell functioning. The telomeres themselves don’t contain any crucial information, but they protect the important parts of the chromosome from deterioration by slowly sacrificing themselves, a bit at a time, during each cell division. It’s thought that some of the issues associated with aging and some cancers may be caused by telomere shortening, which can lead to dysfunctional cells with incomplete chromosomes that die or go rogue.

The connection between telomere length and health remains somewhat tenuous, but they have become quite a hot spot for research, including the two articles published today. In one of the studies, “High Phobic Anxiety is Related to Lower Leukocyte Telomere Length in Women,” led by Olivia Okereke of Harvard University, the researchers compared telomere length with anxiety levels for 5,243 women between the ages of 42 and 69, and found that higher anxiety was generally associated with shorter telomere length. The other report, “Work-related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-based Study,” led by Kirsi Ahola of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, found a similar correlation between work-related exhaustion, which they interpreted as an indicator of prolonged work stress, and telomere length in 2,911 men and women aged 30 to 64, with severe exhaustion associated with markedly shorter telomeres.

Again, it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation, but perhaps these results at least offer a potential suggestion that we should all find a little more time to sit back and relax, something we should probably be doing regardless.

Citations:

Okereke OI, Prescott J, Wong JYY, Han J, Rexrode KM, et al. (2012) High Phobic Anxiety Is Related to Lower Leukocyte Telomere Length in Women. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40516. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040516

Ahola K, Sirén I, Kivimäki M, Ripatti S, Aromaa A, et al. (2012) Work-Related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-Based Study. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40186. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040186

Aping around: Locomotor behavior of an extinct great ape

A great ape that roamed Spain 10 million years ago got around like no other hominids known before or since, researchers conclude, based on a unique mosaic of skeletal features that suggest a combination of suspensory and quadrupedal behaviors.

The authors of the study, led by David Alba of the Catalan Paleontology Institute, analyzed bones from the elbow area, shoulder girdle, rib cage, and forelimb of a partial Hispanopithecus laietanus skeleton. They found features suggesting multiple different types of locomotion patterns for the extinct ape, including both swinging through the branches by the arms and walking among the branches on all four feet. The precise combination of features and behaviors, they write, is totally unique among known extinct and extant ape species.

Based on these results, they call the species a ”transitional state,” in that the combination of features simultaneously allowed the ape to maintain balance on all fours while also allowing it to move toward more suspensory behavior, which ultimately took over as the predominant mode of locomotion for the lineage.

This study probably doesn’t have immediate implications for the hotly debated question of how and why human bipedalism evolved, but sometimes it’s nice to take a step back from our relentlessly anthropocentric view and simply appreciate our ape cousins for what they are – and what they were millions of years ago. And, in a broader sense, this study also serves as a reminder that we must be careful to remember that we can’t conceptualize extinct species based only on “the biased evidence provided by their few and very specialized remaining living representatives,” as the authors write. The true evolutionary history is simply much too complex.

Citation: Alba DM, Almécija S, Casanovas-Vilar I, Méndez JM, Moyà-Solà S (2012) A Partial Skeleton of the Fossil Great Ape Hispanopithecus laietanus from Can Feu and the Mosaic Evolution of Crown-Hominoid Positional Behaviors. PLoS ONE 7(6): e39617. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039617

Honey bee see . . . honey bee do?

Training a dog is hard enough, so just imagine some of the tricks you would have to use to train a honey bee. Despite the difficulties, Scott Dobrin and Susan Fahrbach at Wake Forest University in North Carolina successfully trained honeybees to respond to colored lights for a tasty sucrose treat, reported in the recent PLoS ONE publication “Visual Associative Learning in Restrained Honey Bees with Intact Antennae.”

One of the most interesting parts of this paper is the experimental apparatus itself, which involves immobilizing a honey bee in a drinking straw, with two pins on either side of the neck to create a yoke-like structure. Previously, most similar experiments had used a full collar, typically made of duct tape, to harness the bees, which Dobrin and Fahrbach propose may be more damaging to the bees and potentially bias the results.

With their novel set-up, the authors were set to investigate the role of antennae in training honey bees to respond to visual cues.

Honey bees instinctually extend their proboscis (sort of like a long tongue) when their antennae are presented with a sweet solution. Researchers had previously trained honey bees to extend their proboscis in response to odors, but whether they could be trained similarly with visual cues remained a topic of debate. Multiple studies showed that they only learned to respond to visual cues if their antennae were removed – unless the visual stimulus was also paired with an odor.

Dobrin and Fahrbach wanted to resolve this discrepancy, and with their gentler set-up, they showed that honey bees could be trained to respond to visual learning tasks even with their antennae intact, in contrast to earlier results.

Interestingly, they found that the younger bees did better the older ones. Maybe the old saying is true – old bees, just like old dogs, can’t learn new tricks.

Citation: Dobrin SE, Fahrbach SE (2012) Visual Associative Learning in Restrained Honey Bees with Intact Antennae. PLoS ONE 7(6): e37666. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037666

Malaria from many angles

World Malaria Day may have come and gone, but our PLoS ONE authors certainly seem to be keeping in the spirit, with three new malaria-related publications in the last week.

On Friday, we published “Distributed Medical Image Analysis and Diagnosis through Crowd-Sourced Games: A Malaria Case Study,” by a group of authors from University of California, Los Angeles. Today we have two more to add to the list: “Investigation of Host Candidate Malaria-Associated Risk/Protective SNPs in a Brazilian Amazonian Population,” from an international team of authors from Brazil and the UK, and “Algae-Produced Pfs25 Elicits Antibodies that Inhibit Malaria Transmission,” from University of California, San Diego.

I love how these articles all tackle aspects of a single problem, but in such different ways, from the patient to the mosquito host to the causative parasite, and from diagnosis to treatment to prevention. This breadth of coverage highlights the incredible richness and diversity of malaria research, and of the broader scientific research community as well, which is very important for a multidisciplinary – and frequently interdisciplinary – journal like PLoS ONE.

Citations:

Mavandadi S, Dimitrov S, Feng S, Yu F, Sikora U, et al. (2012) Distributed Medical Image Analysis and Diagnosis through Crowd-Sourced Games: A Malaria Case Study. PLoS ONE 7(5): e37245. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037245

da Silva Santos S, Clark TG, Campino S, Suarez-Mutis MC, Rockett KA, et al. (2012) Investigation of Host Candidate Malaria-Associated Risk/Protective SNPs in a Brazilian Amazonian Population. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36692. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036692

Gregory JA, Li F, Tomosada LM, Cox CJ, Topol AB, et al. (2012) Algae-Produced Pfs25 Elicits Antibodies That Inhibit Malaria Transmission. PLoS ONE 7(5): e37179. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037179

So I’m a doctor – now what? Post-PhD career choices

The road to a PhD is long and hard, and it’s natural that students’ goals for the future would change over the course of their education. Anecdotal evidence abounds – just ask anyone who’s been through it – and now a study published last week in PLoS ONE shows that students close to graduation are less interested in pursuing faculty careers than are their younger counterparts.

The authors, Henry Sauermann from Georgia Institute of Technology and Michael Roach from University of North Carolina, investigated the attractiveness of different careers to over 4,000 PhD students at different stages in their training in the life sciences, chemistry, and physics at 39 different US tier-one research universities. Across the board, late stage students, defined as those who were looking for jobs or were planning to do so within a year, found faculty jobs less attractive than did early stage students, who had not yet completed their qualifying exam or similar milestones.

There were some interesting distinctions between the responses from chemistry students and the biologists and physicists that caught my attention. My PhD is in chemistry, but I conducted my research in a biology lab, and I felt like the cultures were very different – a distinction that appears to be borne out in the numbers.

From the beginning, the chemistry students in the study were much less interested in faculty positions than were either the biologists or the physicists: only 23% of early stage chemistry students declared a research-focused faculty position to be extremely attractive, as compared to 39% for biologists and 37% for physicists. Furthermore, chemists’ interest in working for either an established firm or a start-up showed huge increases from early to late stage, even though their initial interest in these types of positions was already high relative to their counterparts in biology or physics.

The authors don’t discuss potential reasons for these differences, but my impression is that industry jobs in chemistry are simply more common and more accessible than those in biology. This may not always be the case, but it will be interesting to see how both the academic and industrial cultures evolve as research – and the accompanying funding – goes in new directions.

Citation: Sauermann H, Roach M (2012) Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036307

Identical twins caught red-fingered

Fingerprints are as unique as snowflakes – or so we’re taught in elementary school. Identical twins, though, provide an interesting caveat to this rule: Not only do they look alike, they are also more likely than non-twins to have similar fingerprint patterns.

These similarities raise potential complications for biometrics-based security systems and crime solvers, but a PLoS ONE paper published Friday suggests there’s no reason to worry.

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Iowa, looked at fingerprints from 83 pairs of identical twins. They collected each print six times, rather than the single impression that is usually collected, and used two different identification methods, called P071 and VeriFinger 6.1, and novel analytical methods to evaluate the prints. They found that identical twins’ fingerprints had a 74% probability of being the same type (though not identical), as compared to a 32% probability for a random pair of prints, but they also showed that the fingerprints could be distinguished using the sophisticated identification methods.

Based on these results, it looks like identical twins may not be the perfect criminals after all. Nevertheless, they seem to have a leg up on the rest of us – maybe something to keep in mind the next time you’re trying to solve that thorny art heist.

Citation/Image source: Tao X, Chen X, Yang X, Tian J (2012) Fingerprint Recognition with Identical Twin Fingerprints. PLoS ONE 7(4): e35704. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035704

Observing World Malaria Day 2012: Sustain Gains, Save Lives

Today is the fifth annual World Malaria Day, commemorated every April 25 to recognize and encourage global efforts to control malaria. This year’s theme, “Sustain Gains, Save Lives: Invest in Malaria,” alludes to the many important advances against the malaria parasite that have been achieved in recent years, but also includes a warning: we must continue to invest in malaria research and maintain our vigilance to ensure that painstakingly earned gains are not surrendered to complacency.

Based on the 251 malaria-related PLoS ONE papers published since last year’s World Malaria Day, it’s pretty clear to us that the research community is maintaining its commitment to this disease. Instead of trying to provide an overview of all of these articles, which cover perspectives as diverse as public health, ecology, and microbiology, we decided to observe the day by highlighting a single article that, like this year’s theme, emphasizes the importance of continued research as the parasite proves itself to be a constantly evolving target.

The study, published last October, monitors drug resistance in the causative parasite Plasmodium falciparum in Mozambique over five years, from 2006 to 2010, as the recommended drug treatment was adjusted. The researchers, led by Jaishree Raman of the South African Medical Research Council, found that the incidence of parasitic resistance to the originally recommended drug regimen increased significantly over the course of the study, from 56.2% at the start up to 75.8% in 2010. This approximately 20% leap in resistance suggested that the preferred treatment at the time would become much less effective as its use increased.

However, the Mozambican Ministry of Healthy preempted this scenario by changing their recommended front-line drug treatment in 2008. The authors weren’t able to study the full impact of this policy change, though, because it was not fully deployed until 2010, at which point the study was winding down – further highlighting the need for continued careful monitoring as new treatments are introduced.

You can learn more about World Malaria Day at Roll Back Malaria and the World Health Organization, and read about some additional malaria papers from last year’s World Malaria day post.

Citation: Raman J, Mauff K, Muianga P, Mussa A, Maharaj R, et al. (2011) Five Years of Antimalarial Resistance Marker Surveillance in Gaza Province, Mozambique, Following Artemisinin-Based Combination Therapy Roll Out. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25992. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025992

Image source: eyeweed on Flickr

High altitude genetic juggling

Tibetans and Incas are so well adapted to their high altitude homes that the low oxygen levels don’t even faze them, but for those of us living near sea level, traveling up to the mountains can put a lot of stress on our bodies.  Even so, we can still do some of our own short-term biological adjustments, and a new study published today in PLoS ONE identifies some of the specific genetic changes that are involved in this high altitude acclimation.

The research team, composed of 26 scientists from institutions in China and Denmark, studied four climbers of Himalayan peak Mount Xixiabangama, which rises 8,012 meters, or 26,286 feet, above sea level. (For comparison, Mount Everest is 8,848 meters tall.)  They collected blood samples before, during, and after the trip, which took almost 30 days, and then determined how the climbers’ gene expression – which genes were “on” or “off” – changed over time.

Changing gene expression is one of the fastest ways to adjust to a new environment or situation. The DNA itself can’t change to accommodate rapidly developing needs, but gene expression is can change quickly and plays a large role in determining how a cell behaves. By looking at the climbers’ gene expression, the researchers aimed to find out which genes were most important for the physiological changes that helped the climbers temporarily adjust to life at high altitude.

The results showed a complex network of expression changes, particularly for genes involved in red blood cells and inflammation, which makes sense given the unique rigors of high altitude climbing. As a climber myself (though not nearly to the same extent as those in this study), I’m now left with the question of how my own gene expression may change while I’m on the wall.

Citation: Chen F, Zhang W, Liang Y, Huang J, Li K, et al. (2012) Transcriptome and Network Changes in Climbers at Extreme Altitudes. PLoS ONE 7(2): e31645. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031645

Image source: Rupert Taylor-Price on Flickr