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1.  Control of organ size: development, regeneration, and the role of theory in biology 
BMC Biology  2015;13:14.
How organs grow to be the right size for the animal is one of the central mysteries of biology. In a paper in BMC Biology, Khammash et al. propose a mechanism for escaping from the deficiencies of feedback control of growth as a mechanism.
See research article:
PMCID: PMC4334576
2.  Keeping up with the ′omics: non-equilibrium models of gene regulation 
BMC Biology  2015;13:9.
Non-equilibrium processes are vital features of biological systems. Despite this universally accepted fact, gene regulation is typically formalized into models that assume thermodynamic equilibrium. As experimental evidence expands the repertoire of non-equilibrium genome regulatory mechanisms, theoreticians are challenged to devise general approaches to accommodate and suggest functions for non-equilibrium processes. Ahsendorf et al. provide one such framework, which is discussed in the context of the growing complexity of eukaryotic gene regulation.
PMCID: PMC4321706
3.  Open questions: seeking a holistic approach for mitochondrial research 
BMC Biology  2015;13:8.
In addition to their role as energy generators, mitochondria play critical and active roles in diverse signalling pathways, from immunity to cell survival and cell fate decisions. However, there remain many open questions and challenges as we work towards integrating this mighty organelle into established paradigms of cellular physiology.
PMCID: PMC4318159  PMID: 25651813
4.  Aging and DNA methylation 
BMC Biology  2015;13:7.
In this Opinion article, we summarize how changes in DNA methylation occur during aging in mammals and discuss examples of how such events may contribute to the aging process. We explore mechanisms that could facilitate DNA methylation changes in a site-specific manner and highlight a model in which region-specific DNA hypermethylation during aging is facilitated in a competitive manner by destabilization of the Polycomb repressive complex.
PMCID: PMC4311512  PMID: 25637097
5.  A role for Ras in inhibiting circular foraging behavior as revealed by a new method for time and cell-specific RNAi 
BMC Biology  2015;13:6.
The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, in which loss-of-function mutants and RNA interference (RNAi) models are available, is a model organism useful for analyzing effects of genes on various life phenomena, including behavior. In particular, RNAi is a powerful tool that enables time- or cell-specific knockdown via heat shock-inducible RNAi or cell-specific RNAi. However, conventional RNAi is insufficient for investigating pleiotropic genes with various sites of action and life stage-dependent functions.
Here, we investigated the Ras gene for its role in exploratory behavior in C. elegans. We found that, under poor environmental conditions, mutations in the Ras-MAPK signaling pathway lead to circular locomotion instead of normal exploratory foraging. Spontaneous foraging is regulated by a neural circuit composed of three classes of neurons: IL1, OLQ, and RMD, and we found that Ras functions in this neural circuit to modulate the direction of locomotion. We further observed that Ras plays an essential role in the regulation of GLR-1 glutamate receptor localization in RMD neurons. To investigate the temporal- and cell-specific profiles of the functions of Ras, we developed a new RNAi method that enables simultaneous time- and cell-specific knockdown. In this method, one RNA strand is expressed by a cell-specific promoter and the other by a heat shock promoter, resulting in only expression of double-stranded RNA in the target cell when heat shock is induced. This technique revealed that control of GLR-1 localization in RMD neurons requires Ras at the adult stage. Further, we demonstrated the application of this method to other genes.
We have established a new RNAi method that performs simultaneous time- and cell-specific knockdown and have applied this to reveal temporal profiles of the Ras-MAPK pathway in the control of exploratory behavior under poor environmental conditions.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-015-0114-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4321700  PMID: 25603799
C. elegans; Exploratory behavior; Glutamate receptor; RNAi method; The Ras-MAPK pathway
6.  Morphogens, modeling and patterning the neural tube: an interview with James Briscoe 
BMC Biology  2015;13:5.
James Briscoe has a BSc in Microbiology and Virology (from the University of Warwick, UK) and a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology (from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, London, now Cancer Research UK). He started working on the development of the neural tube in the lab of Tom Jessel as a postdoctoral fellow, establishing that there was graded sonic hedgehog signaling in the ventral neural tube. He is currently a group leader and Head of Division in Developmental Biology at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (which will become part of the Francis Crick Institute in April 2015). He is working to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms of graded signaling in the vertebrate neural tube.
We interviewed him about the development of ideas on morphogenetic gradients and his own work on modeling the development of the neural tube for our series on modeling in biology.
PMCID: PMC4299813  PMID: 25600934
7.  A fast recoiling silk-like elastomer facilitates nanosecond nematocyst discharge 
BMC Biology  2015;13:3.
The discharge of the Cnidarian stinging organelle, the nematocyst, is one of the fastest processes in biology and involves volume changes of the highly pressurised (150 bar) capsule of up to 50%. Hitherto, the molecular basis for the unusual biomechanical properties of nematocysts has been elusive, as their structure was mainly defined as a stress-resistant collagenous matrix.
Here, we characterise Cnidoin, a novel elastic protein identified as a structural component of Hydra nematocysts. Cnidoin is expressed in nematocytes of all types and immunostainings revealed incorporation into capsule walls and tubules concomitant with minicollagens. Similar to spider silk proteins, to which it is related at sequence level, Cnidoin possesses high elasticity and fast coiling propensity as predicted by molecular dynamics simulations and quantified by force spectroscopy. Recombinant Cnidoin showed a high tendency for spontaneous aggregation to bundles of fibrillar structures.
Cnidoin represents the molecular factor involved in kinetic energy storage and release during the ultra-fast nematocyst discharge. Furthermore, it implies an early evolutionary origin of protein elastomers in basal metazoans.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0113-1) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4321713  PMID: 25592740
Hydra; Nematocyst; Elastomer; Molecular dynamics; Single molecule force spectroscopy
8.  Retarded PDI diffusion and a reductive shift in poise of the calcium depleted endoplasmic reticulum 
BMC Biology  2015;13:2.
Endoplasmic reticulum (ER) lumenal protein thiol redox balance resists dramatic variation in unfolded protein load imposed by diverse physiological challenges including compromise in the key upstream oxidases. Lumenal calcium depletion, incurred during normal cell signaling, stands out as a notable exception to this resilience, promoting a rapid and reversible shift towards a more reducing poise. Calcium depletion induced ER redox alterations are relevant to physiological conditions associated with calcium signaling, such as the response of pancreatic cells to secretagogues and neuronal activity. The core components of the ER redox machinery are well characterized; however, the molecular basis for the calcium-depletion induced shift in redox balance is presently obscure.
In vitro, the core machinery for generating disulfides, consisting of ERO1 and the oxidizing protein disulfide isomerase, PDI1A, was indifferent to variation in calcium concentration within the physiological range. However, ER calcium depletion in vivo led to a selective 2.5-fold decline in PDI1A mobility, whereas the mobility of the reducing PDI family member, ERdj5 was unaffected. In vivo, fluorescence resonance energy transfer measurements revealed that declining PDI1A mobility correlated with formation of a complex with the abundant ER chaperone calreticulin, whose mobility was also inhibited by calcium depletion and the calcium depletion-mediated reductive shift was attenuated in cells lacking calreticulin. Measurements with purified proteins confirmed that the PDI1A-calreticulin complex dissociated as Ca2+ concentrations approached those normally found in the ER lumen ([Ca2+]K0.5max = 190 μM).
Our findings suggest that selective sequestration of PDI1A in a calcium depletion-mediated complex with the abundant chaperone calreticulin attenuates the effective concentration of this major lumenal thiol oxidant, providing a plausible and simple mechanism for the observed shift in ER lumenal redox poise upon physiological calcium depletion.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0112-2) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4316587  PMID: 25575667
Fluorescence lifetime imaging; Protein disulfide isomerase; Calreticulin; Endoplasmic reticulum; Redox; Calcium
9.  Dynamic response of RNA editing to temperature in Drosophila 
BMC Biology  2015;13:1.
Adenosine-to-inosine RNA editing is a highly conserved process that post-transcriptionally modifies mRNA, generating proteomic diversity, particularly within the nervous system of metazoans. Transcripts encoding proteins involved in neurotransmission predominate as targets of such modifications. Previous reports suggest that RNA editing is responsive to environmental inputs in the form of temperature alterations. However, the molecular determinants underlying temperature-dependent RNA editing responses are not well understood.
Using the poikilotherm Drosophila, we show that acute temperature alterations within a normal physiological range result in substantial changes in RNA editing levels. Our examination of particular sites reveals diversity in the patterns with which editing responds to temperature, and these patterns are conserved across five species of Drosophilidae representing over 10 million years of divergence. In addition, we show that expression of the editing enzyme, ADAR (adenosine deaminase acting on RNA), is dramatically decreased at elevated temperatures, partially, but not fully, explaining some target responses to temperature. Interestingly, this reduction in editing enzyme levels at elevated temperature is only partially reversed by a return to lower temperatures. Lastly, we show that engineered structural variants of the most temperature-sensitive editing site, in a sodium channel transcript, perturb thermal responsiveness in RNA editing profile for a particular RNA structure.
Our results suggest that the RNA editing process responds to temperature alterations via two distinct molecular mechanisms: through intrinsic thermo-sensitivity of the RNA structures that direct editing, and due to temperature sensitive expression or stability of the RNA editing enzyme. Environmental cues, in this case temperature, rapidly reprogram the Drosophila transcriptome through RNA editing, presumably resulting in altered proteomic ratios of edited and unedited proteins.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0111-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4299485  PMID: 25555396
ADAR; RNA editing; RNA thermometers; Temperature; Editosome; Poikilotherm; Inosine; A-to-I editing
10.  Antagonistic roles in fetal development and adult physiology for the oppositely imprinted Grb10 and Dlk1 genes 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):771.
Despite being a fundamental biological problem the control of body size and proportions during development remains poorly understood, although it is accepted that the insulin-like growth factor (IGF) pathway has a central role in growth regulation, probably in all animals. The involvement of imprinted genes has also attracted much attention, not least because two of the earliest discovered were shown to be oppositely imprinted and antagonistic in their regulation of growth. The Igf2 gene encodes a paternally expressed ligand that promotes growth, while maternally expressed Igf2r encodes a cell surface receptor that restricts growth by sequestering Igf2 and targeting it for lysosomal degradation. There are now over 150 imprinted genes known in mammals, but no other clear examples of antagonistic gene pairs have been identified. The delta-like 1 gene (Dlk1) encodes a putative ligand that promotes fetal growth and in adults restricts adipose deposition. Conversely, Grb10 encodes an intracellular signalling adaptor protein that, when expressed from the maternal allele, acts to restrict fetal growth and is permissive for adipose deposition in adulthood.
Here, using knockout mice, we present genetic and physiological evidence that these two factors exert their opposite effects on growth and physiology through a common signalling pathway. The major effects are on body size (particularly growth during early life), lean:adipose proportions, glucose regulated metabolism and lipid storage in the liver. A biochemical pathway linking the two cell signalling factors remains to be defined.
We propose that Dlk1 and Grb10 define a mammalian growth axis that is separate from the IGF pathway, yet also features an antagonistic imprinted gene pair.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0099-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4280702  PMID: 25551289
Adiposity; Body proportions; Genomic imprinting; Glucose-regulated metabolism; Growth; Mouse genetics
11.  Frugal fat or munificent muscle: genomic imprinting and metabolism 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):772.
Variation in body composition is a popular obsession. The culturally ‘ideal’ body type is light on fat and heavy on muscle but the human population is collectively laying on fat. A new study finds antagonistic effects of two imprinted genes, Grb10 and Dlk1, on body composition in mice. These findings pose the question whether there is an evolutionary conflict between genes of maternal and paternal origin over the optimal proportions of body fat and lean muscle mass.
See research article:
PMCID: PMC4280740  PMID: 25551395
12.  The toxoplasma-host cell junction is anchored to the cell cortex to sustain parasite invasive force 
BMC Biology  2014;12:773.
The public health threats imposed by toxoplasmosis worldwide and by malaria in sub-Saharan countries are directly associated with the capacity of their related causative agents Toxoplasma and Plasmodium, respectively, to colonize and expand inside host cells. Therefore, deciphering how these two Apicomplexan protozoan parasites access their host cells has been highlighted as a priority research with the perspective of designing anti-invasive molecules to prevent diseases. Central to the mechanism of invasion for both genera is mechanical force, which is thought to be applied by the parasite at the interface between the two cells following assembly of a unique cell-cell junction but this model lacks direct evidence and has been challenged by recent genetic studies. In this work, using parasites expressing the fluorescent core component of this junction, we analyze characteristic features of the kinematics of penetration of more than 1,000 invasion events.
The majority of invasion events occur with a typical forward rotational progression of the parasite through a static junction into an invaginating host cell plasma membrane. However, if parasites encounter resistance and if the junction is not strongly anchored to the host cell cortex, as when parasites do not secrete the toxofilin protein and, therefore, are unable to locally remodel the cortical actin cytoskeleton, the junction travels retrogradely with the host cell membrane along the parasite surface allowing the formation of a functional vacuole. Kinetic measurements of the invasive trajectories strongly support a similar parasite driven force in both static and capped junctions, both of which lead to successful invasion. However, about 20% of toxofilin mutants fail to enter and eventually disengage from the host cell membrane while the secreted RhOptry Neck (RON2) molecules are posteriorally capped before being cleaved and released in the medium. By contrast in cells characterized by low cortex tension and high cortical actin dynamics junction capping and entry failure are drastically reduced.
This kinematic analysis newly highlights that to invade cells parasites need to engage their motor with the junction molecular complex where force is efficiently applied only upon proper anchorage to the host cell membrane and cortex.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0108-y) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4316648  PMID: 25551479
Cortical actin; Host cell Invasion; Kinematics; Toxofilin; Toxoplasma
13.  Nucleosome organizations in induced pluripotent stem cells reprogrammed from somatic cells belonging to three different germ layers 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):109.
Nucleosome organization determines the chromatin state, which in turn controls gene expression or silencing. Nucleosome remodeling occurs during somatic cell reprogramming, but it is still unclear to what degree the re-established nucleosome organization of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) resembles embryonic stem cells (ESCs), and whether the iPSCs inherit some residual gene expression from the parental fibroblast cells.
We generated genome-wide nucleosome maps in mouse ESCs and in iPSCs reprogrammed from somatic cells belonging to three different germ layers using a secondary reprogramming system. Pairwise comparisons showed that the nucleosome organizations in the iPSCs, regardless of the iPSCs’ tissue of origin, were nearly identical to the ESCs, but distinct from mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEF). There is a canonical nucleosome arrangement of -1, nucleosome depletion region, +1, +2, +3, and so on nucleosomes around the transcription start sites of active genes whereas only a nucleosome occupies silent transcriptional units. Transcription factor binding sites possessed characteristic nucleosomal architecture, such that their access was governed by the rotational and translational settings of the nucleosome. Interestingly, the tissue-specific genes were highly expressed only in the parental somatic cells of the corresponding iPS cell line before reprogramming, but had a similar expression level in all the resultant iPSCs and ESCs.
The re-established nucleosome landscape during nuclear reprogramming provides a conserved setting for accessibility of DNA sequences in mouse pluripotent stem cells. No persistent residual expression program or nucleosome positioning of the parental somatic cells that reflected their tissue of origin was passed on to the resulting mouse iPSCs.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0109-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4296552  PMID: 25528259
Nucleosome organization; iPSC; ESC; Pluripotency; Chromatin remodeling; Gene expression
14.  Peripheral residence of naïve CD4 T cells induces MHC class II-dependent alterations in phenotype and function 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):106.
As individual naïve CD4 T lymphocytes circulate in the body after emerging from the thymus, they are likely to have individually varying microenvironmental interactions even in the absence of stimulation via specific target recognition. It is not clear if these interactions result in alterations in their activation, survival and effector programming. Naïve CD4 T cells show unimodal distribution for many phenotypic properties, suggesting that the variation is caused by intrinsic stochasticity, although underlying variation due to subsets created by different histories of microenvironmental interactions remains possible. To explore this possibility, we began examining the phenotype and functionality of naïve CD4 T cells differing in a basic unimodally distributed property, the CD4 levels, as well as the causal origin of these differences.
We examined separated CD4hi and CD4lo subsets of mouse naïve CD4 cells. CD4lo cells were smaller with higher CD5 levels and lower levels of the dual-specific phosphatase (DUSP)6-suppressing micro-RNA miR181a, and responded poorly with more Th2-skewed outcomes. Human naïve CD4lo and CD4hi cells showed similar differences. Naïve CD4lo and CD4hi subsets of thymic single-positive CD4 T cells did not show differences whereas peripheral naïve CD4lo and CD4hi subsets of T cell receptor (TCR)-transgenic T cells did. Adoptive transfer-mediated parking of naïve CD4 cells in vivo lowered CD4 levels, increased CD5 and reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels and induced hyporesponsiveness in them, dependent, at least in part, on availability of major histocompatibility complex class II (MHCII) molecules. ROS scavenging or DUSP inhibition ameliorated hyporesponsiveness. Naïve CD4 cells from aged mice showed lower CD4 levels and cell sizes, higher CD5 levels, and hyporesponsiveness and Th2-skewing reversed by DUSP inhibition.
Our data show that, underlying a unimodally distributed property, the CD4 level, there are subsets of naïve CD4 cells that vary in the time spent in the periphery receiving MHCII-mediated signals and show resultant alteration of phenotype and functionality via ROS and DUSP activity. Our findings also suggest the feasibility of potential pharmacological interventions for improved CD4 T cell responses during vaccination of older people via either anti-oxidant or DUSP inhibitor small molecules.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0106-0) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4306244  PMID: 25528158
CD4 T cell; Naïve; Peripheral residence; MHC class II; Th1; Th2
15.  The Lingulodinium circadian system lacks rhythmic changes in transcript abundance 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):107.
Almost all cells display circadian rhythms, approximately 24-hour period changes in their biochemistry, physiology or behavior. These rhythms are orchestrated by an endogenous circadian clock whose mechanism is based on transcription-translation feedback loops (TTFL) where the translated products of clock genes act to inhibit their own transcription.
We have used RNA-Seq to measure the abundance of all transcripts in an RNA-Seq-derived de novo gene catalog in two different experiments. One compared midday and midnight in a light–dark cycle (ZT6 and ZT18) and under constant light (CT6 and CT18). The second compared four different times (ZT2, ZT6, ZT14 and ZT18) under a light dark cycle. We show here that despite an elaborate repertoire of biological rhythms, the unicellular dinoflagellate Lingulodinium had no detectable daily variation in the abundance of any transcript in an RNA-Seq-derived de novo gene catalog. We also examined the timing of the bioluminescence and photosynthesis rhythms in the presence of the transcription inhibitors actinomycin D and cordycepin. We found that the timing of the two rhythms was unchanged even when transcription rates had decreased to roughly 5% the levels of untreated cells.
The lack of detectable daily variation in transcript levels indicates that the endogenous circadian timer of Lingulodinium does not require rhythmic RNA. If the circadian timer is considered as a limit cycle oscillator, then cellular time in this organism must be defined by variations in state variables that do not include the amount of a clock gene transcript.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0107-z) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4298066  PMID: 25526979
Transcript profiling; RNA Seq; Circadian rhythms; Dinoflagellate
16.  A substrate ambiguous enzyme facilitates genome reduction in an intracellular symbiont 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):110.
Genome evolution in intracellular microbial symbionts is characterized by gene loss, generating some of the smallest and most gene-poor genomes known. As a result of gene loss these genomes commonly contain metabolic pathways that are fragmented relative to their free-living relatives. The evolutionary retention of fragmented metabolic pathways in the gene-poor genomes of endosymbionts suggests that they are functional. However, it is not always clear how they maintain functionality. To date, the fragmented metabolic pathways of endosymbionts have been shown to maintain functionality through complementation by host genes, complementation by genes of another endosymbiont and complementation by genes in host genomes that have been horizontally acquired from a microbial source that is not the endosymbiont. Here, we demonstrate a fourth mechanism.
We investigate the evolutionary retention of a fragmented pathway for the essential nutrient pantothenate (vitamin B5) in the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum endosymbiosis with Buchnera aphidicola. Using quantitative analysis of gene expression we present evidence for complementation of the Buchnera pantothenate biosynthesis pathway by host genes. Further, using complementation assays in an Escherichia coli mutant we demonstrate functional replacement of a pantothenate biosynthesis enzyme, 2-dehydropantoate 2-reductase (E.C., by an endosymbiont gene, ilvC, encoding a substrate ambiguous enzyme.
Earlier studies have speculated that missing enzyme steps in fragmented endosymbiont metabolic pathways are completed by adaptable endosymbiont enzymes from other pathways. Here, we experimentally demonstrate completion of a fragmented endosymbiont vitamin biosynthesis pathway by recruitment of a substrate ambiguous enzyme from another pathway. In addition, this work extends host/symbiont metabolic collaboration in the aphid/Buchnera symbiosis from amino acid metabolism to include vitamin biosynthesis.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0110-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4306246  PMID: 25527092
Bacteriocyte; Symbiosis; Endosymbiosis; Co-evolution; Gammaproteobacteria
17.  Generation of comprehensive transposon insertion mutant library for the model archaeon, Haloferax volcanii, and its use for gene discovery 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):103.
Archaea share fundamental properties with bacteria and eukaryotes. Yet, they also possess unique attributes, which largely remain poorly characterized. Haloferax volcanii is an aerobic, moderately halophilic archaeon that can be grown in defined media. It serves as an excellent archaeal model organism to study the molecular mechanisms of biological processes and cellular responses to changes in the environment. Studies on haloarchaea have been impeded by the lack of efficient genetic screens that would facilitate the identification of protein functions and respective metabolic pathways.
Here, we devised an insertion mutagenesis strategy that combined Mu in vitro DNA transposition and homologous-recombination-based gene targeting in H. volcanii. We generated an insertion mutant library, in which the clones contained a single genomic insertion. From the library, we isolated pigmentation-defective and auxotrophic mutants, and the respective insertions pinpointed a number of genes previously known to be involved in carotenoid and amino acid biosynthesis pathways, thus validating the performance of the methodologies used. We also identified mutants that had a transposon insertion in a gene encoding a protein of unknown or putative function, demonstrating that novel roles for non-annotated genes could be assigned.
We have generated, for the first time, a random genomic insertion mutant library for a halophilic archaeon and used it for efficient gene discovery. The library will facilitate the identification of non-essential genes behind any specific biochemical pathway. It represents a significant step towards achieving a more complete understanding of the unique characteristics of halophilic archaea.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0103-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4300041  PMID: 25488358
Haloferax volcanii; Halophilic archaea; Insertion mutant library; Mu transposition; MuA protein; Gene discovery
18.  The small protein floodgates are opening; now the functional analysis begins 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):96.
Aside from a few serendipitous discoveries, small proteins of less than 50 amino acids in bacteria and 100 amino acids in eukaryotes were largely ignored due to challenges in their genetic and biochemical detection. However, with the ever-increasing availability of completed genome sequences and deep sequencing, which allows analysis of genome-wide ribosome occupancy, hundreds of small proteins are now being identified. This brings to the forefront the challenges and opportunities associated with the characterization of these proteins.
See research article:
PMCID: PMC4256750  PMID: 25475548
19.  A framework for modelling gene regulation which accommodates non-equilibrium mechanisms 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):102.
Gene regulation has, for the most part, been quantitatively analysed by assuming that regulatory mechanisms operate at thermodynamic equilibrium. This formalism was originally developed to analyse the binding and unbinding of transcription factors from naked DNA in eubacteria. Although widely used, it has made it difficult to understand the role of energy-dissipating, epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation, nucleosome remodelling and post-translational modification of histones and co-regulators, which act together with transcription factors to regulate gene expression in eukaryotes.
Here, we introduce a graph-based framework that can accommodate non-equilibrium mechanisms. A gene-regulatory system is described as a graph, which specifies the DNA microstates (vertices), the transitions between microstates (edges) and the transition rates (edge labels). The graph yields a stochastic master equation for how microstate probabilities change over time. We show that this framework has broad scope by providing new insights into three very different ad hoc models, of steroid-hormone responsive genes, of inherently bounded chromatin domains and of the yeast PHO5 gene. We find, moreover, surprising complexity in the regulation of PHO5, which has not yet been experimentally explored, and we show that this complexity is an inherent feature of being away from equilibrium. At equilibrium, microstate probabilities do not depend on how a microstate is reached but, away from equilibrium, each path to a microstate can contribute to its steady-state probability. Systems that are far from equilibrium thereby become dependent on history and the resulting complexity is a fundamental challenge. To begin addressing this, we introduce a graph-based concept of independence, which can be applied to sub-systems that are far from equilibrium, and prove that history-dependent complexity can be circumvented when sub-systems operate independently.
As epigenomic data become increasingly available, we anticipate that gene function will come to be represented by graphs, as gene structure has been represented by sequences, and that the methods introduced here will provide a broader foundation for understanding how genes work.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0102-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4288563  PMID: 25475875
linear framework; Laplacian dynamics; thermodynamic formalism; non-equilibrium statistical mechanics; gene regulation; chromatin domains; steroid-hormone responsive genes; phosphate regulation; PHO5; product graph; independence
20.  The essential Schizosaccharomyces pombe Pfh1 DNA helicase promotes fork movement past G-quadruplex motifs to prevent DNA damage 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):101.
G-quadruplexes (G4s) are stable non-canonical DNA secondary structures consisting of stacked arrays of four guanines, each held together by Hoogsteen hydrogen bonds. Sequences with the ability to form these structures in vitro, G4 motifs, are found throughout bacterial and eukaryotic genomes. The budding yeast Pif1 DNA helicase, as well as several bacterial Pif1 family helicases, unwind G4 structures robustly in vitro and suppress G4-induced DNA damage in S. cerevisiae in vivo.
We determined the genomic distribution and evolutionary conservation of G4 motifs in four fission yeast species and investigated the relationship between G4 motifs and Pfh1, the sole S. pombe Pif1 family helicase. Using chromatin immunoprecipitation combined with deep sequencing, we found that many G4 motifs in the S. pombe genome were associated with Pfh1. Cells depleted of Pfh1 had increased fork pausing and DNA damage near G4 motifs, as indicated by high DNA polymerase occupancy and phosphorylated histone H2A, respectively. In general, G4 motifs were underrepresented in genes. However, Pfh1-associated G4 motifs were located on the transcribed strand of highly transcribed genes significantly more often than expected, suggesting that Pfh1 has a function in replication or transcription at these sites.
In the absence of functional Pfh1, unresolved G4 structures cause fork pausing and DNA damage of the sort associated with human tumors.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0101-5) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4275981  PMID: 25471935
Pfh1; Pif1 family helicase; G-quadruplex DNA; DNA replication; Schizosaccharomyces pombe; Genome integrity
21.  Vaccines, emerging viruses, and how to avoid disaster 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):100.
Rino Rappuoli is a graduate of Siena University, where he also earned his PhD before moving to the Sclavo Research Center, the Italian vaccine institute, also in Siena. He then spent two years in the USA, mostly at Harvard with John Murphy and Alwin Pappenheimer working on a new diphtheria vaccine based on a non-toxic mutant of diphtheria toxin which has since become the basis for conjugate vaccines against haemophilus, meningococcus, and pneumococcal infections, before returning to the Sclavo Research Center where he developed an acellular vaccine based on a mutant pertussis toxin. With many achievements in vaccine development to his credit, he is now Global Head of Vaccines Research and Development for Novartis Vaccines in Siena, and has most recently pioneered reverse vaccinology, in which the genome of the pathogen is screened for candidate antigenic and immunogenic vaccine components. We spoke to him about the potential for outbreaks of the kind we are now seeing with Ebolavirus in West Africa, and what can be done to prevent them.
PMCID: PMC4247664  PMID: 25432510
22.  Adaptive developmental plasticity: Compartmentalized responses to environmental cues and to corresponding internal signals provide phenotypic flexibility 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):1.
The environmental regulation of development can result in the production of distinct phenotypes from the same genotype and provide the means for organisms to cope with environmental heterogeneity. The effect of the environment on developmental outcomes is typically mediated by hormonal signals which convey information about external cues to the developing tissues. While such plasticity is a wide-spread property of development, not all developing tissues are equally plastic. To understand how organisms integrate environmental input into coherent adult phenotypes, we must know how different body parts respond, independently or in concert, to external cues and to the corresponding internal signals.
We quantified the effect of temperature and ecdysone hormone manipulations on post-growth tissue patterning in an experimental model of adaptive developmental plasticity, the butterfly Bicyclus anynana. Following a suite of traits evolving by natural or sexual selection, we found that different groups of cells within the same tissue have sensitivities and patterns of response that are surprisingly distinct for the external environmental cue and for the internal hormonal signal. All but those wing traits presumably involved in mate choice responded to developmental temperature and, of those, all but the wing traits not exposed to predators responded to hormone manipulations. On the other hand, while patterns of significant response to temperature contrasted traits on autonomously-developing wings, significant response to hormone manipulations contrasted neighboring groups of cells with distinct color fates. We also showed that the spatial compartmentalization of these responses cannot be explained by the spatial or temporal compartmentalization of the hormone receptor protein.
Our results unravel the integration of different aspects of the adult phenotype into developmental and functional units which both reflect and impact evolutionary change. Importantly, our findings underscore the complexity of the interactions between environment and physiology in shaping the development of different body parts.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0097-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4275937
Bicyclus anynana; Developmental recombination; Ecdysone; Environmental input; Modularity; Phenotypic flexibility; Physiology; Seasonal polyphenism; Thermal plasticity; Trait-specific sensitivities
23.  Suppression of histone deacetylation promotes the differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells towards neural progenitor cells 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):95.
Emerging studies of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) raise new prospects for neurodegenerative disease modeling and cell replacement therapies. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms underlying the commitment of neural progenitor cells (NPCs) is important for the application of hPSCs in neurodegenerative disease therapies. It has been reported that epigenetic modifications of histones play important roles in neural differentiation, but the exact mechanisms in regulating hPSC differentiation towards NPCs are not fully elucidated.
We demonstrated that suppression of histone deacetylases (HDACs) promoted the differentiation of hPSCs towards NPCs. Application of HDAC inhibitors (HDACi) increased the expression of neuroectodermal markers and enhanced the neuroectodermal specification once neural differentiation was initiated, thereby leading to more NPC generation. Similarly, the transcriptome analysis showed that HDACi increased the expression levels of ectodermal markers and triggered the NPC differentiation related pathways, while decreasing the expression levels of endodermal and mesodermal markers. Furthermore, we documented that HDAC3 but not HDAC1 or HDAC2 was the critical regulator participating in NPC differentiation, and knockdown of HDAC3′s cofactor SMRT exhibited a similar effect as HDAC3 on NPC generation.
Our study reveals that HDACs, especially HDAC3, negatively regulate the differentiation of hPSCs towards NPCs at an earlier stage of neural differentiation. Moreover, HDAC3 might function by forming a repressor complex with its cofactor SMRT during this process. Thus, our findings uncover an important epigenetic mechanism of HDAC3 in the differentiation of hPSCs towards NPCs.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0095-z) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4254204  PMID: 25406762
Histone deacetylation; Histone deacetylase inhibitors; Neuroectodermal specification; Neural progenitor cells; Human pluripotent stem cells
24.  Defense suppression benefits herbivores that have a monopoly on their feeding site but can backfire within natural communities 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):98.
Plants have inducible defenses to combat attacking organisms. Hence, some herbivores have adapted to suppress these defenses. Suppression of plant defenses has been shown to benefit herbivores by boosting their growth and reproductive performance.
We observed in field-grown tomatoes that spider mites (Tetranychus urticae) establish larger colonies on plants already infested with the tomato russet mite (Aculops lycopersici). Using laboratory assays, we observed that spider mites have a much higher reproductive performance on russet mite-infested plants, similar to their performance on the jasmonic acid (JA)-biosynthesis mutant def-1. Hence, we tested if russet mites suppress JA-responses thereby facilitating spider mites. We found that russet mites manipulate defenses: they induce those mediated by salicylic acid (SA) but suppress those mediated by JA which would otherwise hinder growth. This suppression of JA-defenses occurs downstream of JA-accumulation and is independent from its natural antagonist SA. In contrast, spider mites induced both JA- and SA-responses while plants infested with the two mite species together display strongly reduced JA-responses, yet a doubled SA-response. The spider mite-induced JA-response in the presence of russet mites was restored on transgenic tomatoes unable to accumulate SA (nahG), but russet mites alone still did not induce JA-responses on nahG plants. Thus, indirect facilitation of spider mites by russet mites depends on the antagonistic action of SA on JA while suppression of JA-defenses by russet mites does not. Furthermore, russet mite-induced SA-responses inhibited secondary infection by Pseudomonas syringae (Pst) while not affecting the mite itself. Finally, while facilitating spider mites, russet mites experience reduced population growth.
Our results show that the benefits of suppressing plant defenses may diminish within communities with natural competitors. We show that suppression of defenses via the JA-SA antagonism can be a consequence, rather than the cause, of a primary suppression event and that its overall effect is determined by the presence of competing herbivores and the distinct palette of defenses these induce. Thus, whether or not host-defense manipulation improves an herbivore’s fitness depends on interactions with other herbivores via induced-host defenses, implicating bidirectional causation of community structure of herbivores sharing a plant.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0098-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4258945  PMID: 25403155
Plant-herbivore interactions; Plant defense; Phytohormones; Defense suppression; Plant-mediated indirect interactions; Community ecology; Solanum lycopersicum; Aculops lycopersici; Tetranychus urticae; Pseudomonas syringae
25.  Reagent and laboratory contamination can critically impact sequence-based microbiome analyses 
BMC Biology  2014;12(1):87.
The study of microbial communities has been revolutionised in recent years by the widespread adoption of culture independent analytical techniques such as 16S rRNA gene sequencing and metagenomics. One potential confounder of these sequence-based approaches is the presence of contamination in DNA extraction kits and other laboratory reagents.
In this study we demonstrate that contaminating DNA is ubiquitous in commonly used DNA extraction kits and other laboratory reagents, varies greatly in composition between different kits and kit batches, and that this contamination critically impacts results obtained from samples containing a low microbial biomass. Contamination impacts both PCR-based 16S rRNA gene surveys and shotgun metagenomics. We provide an extensive list of potential contaminating genera, and guidelines on how to mitigate the effects of contamination.
These results suggest that caution should be advised when applying sequence-based techniques to the study of microbiota present in low biomass environments. Concurrent sequencing of negative control samples is strongly advised.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0087-z) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4228153  PMID: 25387460
Contamination; Microbiome; Microbiota; Metagenomics; 16S rRNA

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