March has been a bumper month at PLOS Biology with lots of research hitting the press. A selection of our top picks this month include papers on flying reptiles, electric fish, e-cigarette toxicity, obesity and taste, and the role of the ear in motor function.
Our first study in March showed that — contrary to popular opinion — giant flying reptiles known as pterosaurs were thriving right up to the point of their extinction. A massive find of hundreds of fossils from an ancient shoreline in Morocco indicates that at least 7 diverse species co-existed just before the asteroid impact 66 million years ago, suggesting that pterosaurs were still occupying diverse ecological niches. This study received lots of media attention, and was covered in Daily Mail, Smithsonian and Discover Magazine.
Researchers have identified the gene responsible for creating a ‘spark’ in the dramatically named ghost knifefish. This South American family of electric fish can generate the highest frequency of electrical discharge seen in any animal. Scientists have shown that an evolutionarily modified sodium channel could be responsible for this fish’s impressive electrical abilities. This study has also been covered in Science.
E-cigarettes are becoming increasingly popular, but new research suggests that it’s not just the nicotine that we should worry about. More than 7,700 types of e-liquid were screened and researchers found that both the flavour-related chemicals and the main ingredients of e-liquids could cause reduced cell growth in high-throughput tests, indicating variable — and sometimes high — toxicity. To better inform users and regulators, the authors have created an open database of e-liquid ingredients and toxicity data.
Continuing on the theme of public health issues, obesity has been found to dull the sense of taste. This mouse study indicates that obese mice have around 25% fewer taste buds than lean mice. After 8 weeks of feeding mice a high-fat diet, the rate of programmed cell death in the taste bud cells increased, and the generation of new cells decreased, causing a net decline in the number of taste buds. This unsettling study has featured on NPR and in The Washington Post.
Our final paper from March posits a link between early short-term lopsided ear function and long-term lopsided brain development. Mice with a genetic defect affecting the balance function in the inner ear were found to ‘circle’ in a preferred direction. Experimentally manipulating a signalling pathway allowed the researchers to lessen or reverse the preferred turning direction, indicating how early sensory asymmetry can have long-lasting effects on brain function.
See you next month for more research hot off the press!
Featured Image credit: John Conway.