It’s the little things- An interview with the Guest Editors of our Microbial Ecology of Changing Environments Call for Papers

PLOS ONE has an open Call for Papers on the Microbial Ecology of Changing Environments, with selected submissions to be featured in an upcoming Collection. We aim to highlight a range of interdisciplinary articles showcasing

From Penguins to Frogs: The new frontier of wildlife microbiomes

With recent technological advances in DNA sequencing investigating microbiomes from all areas of life has become possible as PLOS ONE Publication Assistant Maija Mallula finds out. With the advancement of DNA sequencing technology, our ability

Small Talk: When Bacterial Chatter Gets Invasive

Sticks and stones may break our bones but microbes’ “words” may hurt us. Breast cancer is a threat to men and women worldwide. Like all cancers, the known causes are attributed to genetics and carcinogens, but recently, scientists have begun … Continue reading »

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Rainforest Fungi Find Home in Sloth Hair

Bradypus_variegatusMost of us have seen a cute sloth video or two on the Internet. Their squished faces, long claws, and scruffy fur make these slow-moving mammals irresistible, but our furry friends aren’t just amusing Internet sensations. Like most inhabitants of the rainforest, little is known about the role sloths play in the rainforest ecosystem.

Three-toed sloths live most of their lives in the trees of Central and South American rainforests. Rainforests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and home to a wide variety of organisms, some of which can be found in rather unusual places.

Due to their vast biodiversity, rainforests have been the source for a wide variety of new medicines, and researchers of this PLOS ONE study sought to uncover whether sloth hair may also contain potential new sources of drugs that could one day treat vector-borne diseases, cancer, or bacterial infections. Why look in sloth fur? It turns out that sloths carry a wide variety of micro- and macro-organisms in their fur, which consists of two layers: an inner layer of fine, soft hair close to the skin, and a long outer layer of coarse hair with “cracks” across it where microbes make their homes. The most well-known inhabitant of sloth fur is green algae. In some cases, the green algae makes the sloth actually appear green, providing a rainforest camouflage.

In the study, seventy-four separate fungi were obtained from the surface of coarse outer hair that were clipped from the lower back of nine living three-toed sloths in Soberanía National Park, Panama, and were cultivated and tested for bioactivity in the lab.

Researchers found a broad range of in vitro activities of the fungi against bugs that cause malaria and Chagas disease, as well as against a specific type of human breast cancer cells. In addition, 20 fungal extracts were active in vitro against at least one bacterial strain. The results may provide for the first time an indication of the biodiversity and bioactivity of microorganisms in sloth hair.

Since sloths are moving around in one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, it’s possible that they may pick up “hitchhikers,” so the researchers can’t be sure how these fungi came to live on the sloth fur. They may even have a symbiotic relationship with the green algae. However the fungi ended up in the fur, the authors suggest their presence in the ecosystem provides support for the role biodiversity plays both in the rainforest and potentially our daily lives.

Citation: Higginbotham S, Wong WR, Linington RG, Spadafora C, Iturrado L, et al. (2014) Sloth Hair as a Novel Source of Fungi with Potent Anti-Parasitic, Anti-Cancer and Anti-Bacterial Bioactivity. PLoS ONE 9(1): e84549. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084549

Image: Bradypus variegates by Christian Mehlführer

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Marine microbes make musical waves

Music may be the newest addition to a science communicator’s toolbox. A PLOS ONE paper published today describes an algorithm that represents terabytes of microbial and environmental data in tunes that sound remarkably like modern jazz.

Microbial bebop”, as the authors describe it, is created using five years’ worth of consecutive measurements of ocean microbial life and environmental factors like temperature, dissolved salts and chlorophyll concentrations. These diverse, extensive data are only a subset of what scientists have been recording at the Western Channel Observatory since 1903.

As first author Larsen explained to the Wired blogs, “It’s my job to take complex data sets and find ways to represent that data in a way that makes the patterns accessible to human observations. There’s no way to look at 10,000 rows and hundreds of columns and intuit what’s going on.”

Each of the four compositions in the paper is derived from the same set of data, but highlights different relationships between the environmental conditions of the ocean and the microbes that live in these waters.

“There are certain parameters like sunlight, temperature or the concentration of phosphorus in the water that give a kind of structure to the data and determine the microbial populations. This structure provides us with an intuitive way to use music to describe a wide range of natural phenomena,” explains Larsen in an Argonne National Laboratories article.

Speaking to Living on Earth, Larsen describes how their music highlights the relationship between different kinds of data. “In most of the pieces that we have posted, the melody is derived from a numerical measurement, such that the lowest measure is the lowest note and the highest measure is the highest note. The other component is the chords. And the chords map to a different component of the data.”

As a result, the music generated from microbial abundance data played to chords generated from phosphorus concentration data will sound quite different from the same microbial data played to chords derived from temperature data.

“Songs themselves probably are never going to actively replace, you know, the bar graph for data analysis, but I think that this kind of translation of complex data into a very accessible format is an opportunity to lead people who probably aren’t highly aware of the importance of microbial ecology in the ocean, and give them a very appealing entry into this kind of data”, explained Larsen in the same interview with Living on Earth.

Though their primary intent was to create novel way to symbolize the interactions of microbes in the ocean, the study also suggests that microbial bebop may eventually have applications in crowd-sourcing solutions to complex environmental issues.

For further reading, a PLOS ONE paper in 2010 demonstrated that the metaphors used to explain a problem could have a powerful impact on people’s thoughts and decisions when designing solutions. Could re-phrasing complex environmental data in music lead to solutions we haven’t heard yet? As you ponder the question, listen to some microbial bebop!

Other media sources that also covered this research include LiveScience, gizmag and the PLOS blog Tooth and Claw

Citations:  Larsen P, Gilbert J (2013) Microbial Bebop: Creating Music from Complex Dynamics in Microbial Ecology. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58119. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058119

Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Image: sheet music by jamuraa on Flickr