How Do Flies Fly?


It’s time to give some thought to how a blowfly, or actually any flight-capable creature flies. We circle back to physics here–drag, lift, thrust, and the weight of the creature as key factors. Calculation of the power required–and how to generate that power–is theoretically easier for mechanical flight, but understanding how muscles and their articulations function together in living organisms to overcome gravity, to propel and turn insects, and to sustain them in flight presents more of a challenge. And if you’ve not thought about it before, flies are pretty incredible–they can pull off amazingly nimble, dexterous and swift turns mid-flight that appear to defy their weight, bulk and the relative size of their wings.

Well, ponder no more… In some absolutely stunning research presented in a PLOS Biology paper, Graham Taylor and colleagues have captured in vivo, in living flies, the dynamic internal mechanics of the blowfly wingbeat. They use time-resolved X-ray microtomography to visualize the muscles and hinges in three-dimensions. The method captures cross-sectional images of the fly that can be combined to construct a virtual model of the dynamic movement of each of the muscles and hings through the course of the wingbeat:



The movie is just incredible; this new approach captures the motion of the thorax, the wing power and steering muscles and the hinge. It allows insight into how the fly manages its speedy turn-on-a-dime/sixpence evasive maneuvers that can be simultaneously annoying and impressive when they’re buzzing around.


It’s clear that this has been an exciting project for all involved; when asked about the research, senior author Graham Taylor commented that:

“This has been an awe-inspiring project on so many levels, not least the exquisite complexity of the insects themselves, but seeing the 3D movies render for the first time was one of those breakthrough moments that as a scientist I’ll never forget. It’s a great example of what interdisciplinary collaboration can achieve – facilitated by a longterm development by the beamline scientists at PSI, sparked off by an idea of the insect physiologists at Imperial, and brought to fruition by the members of the Animal Flight Group at Oxford.”


For more information please do take a look at the research article itself and the related primer, both just published in PLOS Biology.

And for more blowfly porn in vivo flight reconstructions here are the other movie files from the research article:



Walker, S., Schwyn, D., Mokso, R., Wicklein, M., Müller, T., Doube, M., Stampanoni, M., Krapp, H., & Taylor, G. (2014). In Vivo Time-Resolved Microtomography Reveals the Mechanics of the Blowfly Flight Motor PLoS Biology, 12 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001823

Category: Biology, Biotechnology, Computational biology, Image, PLOS Biology, Video | 3 Comments

The European Conference on Fungal Genetics: Luis Corrochano and Joe Heitman

As part of its mission to encourage engagement within the genetics community, PLOS Genetics is sponsoring a number of conferences and meetings this year. In order to raise awareness about these conferences and the researchers who attend them we will be featuring a number of these conferences on Biologue, with posts written by the organisers or PLOS Genetics editors who are involved. The first of these conferences is the European Conference on Fungal Genetics, which takes place in Seville between the 23rd and 27th of March. We hear from Luis Corrochano and Joe Heitman, PLOS Genetics Associate Editor, about their involvement in the conference, and the aspects of fungal genetics that they find exciting.

Joe Heitman

Joe Heitman, Luis Corrochano, Marga Orejas, and Rosa Ruiz-Vazquez at the centenary celebration of Max Delbruck, held in Salamanca, Spain Oct 9-10, 2006.

Joe Heitman, Luis Corrochano, Marga Orejas, and Rosa Ruiz-Vazquez at the centenary celebration of Max Delbruck, held in Salamanca, Spain Oct 9-10, 2006.

I am Joe Heitman, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA.

Our research focuses on fungi, both as causes of infectious disease and as models for questions of general biological interest and importance. Much of our efforts focus on the evolution of sex determination and sexual reproduction, and the impact of a novel type of selfing, unisexual reproduction, on the population structure and biology of microbial pathogens.

The European Congress on Fungal Genetics (ECFG12) is the latest in a long running series of highly successful and impactful meetings that bring together an international cadre of investigators interested in the genetics of fungi. This spans model organisms, pathogens of humans and plants, both yeasts and filamentous fungi, and a diversity of organisms, phyla and scientific questions and approaches.

Luis Corrochano is one of the two co-organizers for the meeting. He and I are colleagues, friends, and for the past almost ten years, collaborators.

Our collaboration started with a former fellow in the lab, Alex Idnurm, now an associate professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. At that time Alex was a fellow in my lab investigation the molecular basis for light sensing in the human fungal pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans. As a side project, he had begun to investigate candidate light sensing machinery in the zygomycete Phycomyces blakesleeanus. Luis is the community organizer for the Phycomyces genome project, and an expert on light sensing in fungi, and we contacted him for assistance with our project. That launched a collaboration that resulted in two landmark publications in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that were featured on the cover. Luis and Alex continue to collaborate to identify other novel light sensing components and pathways in this model for fungal sensory perception.

Luis Corrochano

Fungi can grow on wood and use many enzymes for the degradation of cellulose and lignin. Research with fungi can help to design new methods to recycle human waste for the production of biofuel. The picture shows colonies of Neurospora crassa growing on the surface of a dead trunk. From PLOS ONE (PLoS ONE 7: e33658, 2012).

Fungi can grow on wood and use many enzymes for the degradation of cellulose and lignin. Research with fungi can help to design new methods to recycle human waste for the production of biofuel. The picture shows colonies of Neurospora crassa growing on the surface of a dead trunk. From PLOS ONE (PLoS ONE 7: e33658, 2012).

Fungi are the closest relatives to animals. Despite their differences in shapes and sizes, fungi and animals are evolutionary related and share many basic molecular and cellular features. Several fungi are used as models for eukaryotic biology (for example the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae), but fungi are also investigated and characterized for their use in the biotechnological industry as producers of food and drinks (wines, beers, cheese, bread), and because we like to eat them (mushrooms, for example). In addition, fungi grow on plants and animals, causing diseases that can wipe out entire crops or kill animals, including us.

Scientists interested in the use of fungi as experimental organisms get together every year on either side of the Atlantic. The Fungal Genetics Conferences and the European Fungal Genetics Conferences are held every other year in Asilomar (California, USA) or in a European country to discuss recent discoveries on fungal biology, including genetics, genomics, biotechnology and pathogenesis. The 12th European Conference on Fungal Genetics will take place in Seville (Spain) in a few days (March 23-27) and will gather more than 700 participants from academia and industries from 40 countries. The conference includes plenary sessions and concurrent sessions, and two poster sessions for informal discussions. We anticipate that attendants will describe and discuss recent discoveries on fungal genomics, cell biology, pathogenesis and biotechnology.

I usually prefer attending small conferences, as large conferences like ECFG include too many lectures, often at the same time. On the other hand, large conferences offer the opportunity to meet with my peers, and with the colleagues with whom I collaborate. Modern molecular biology often requires collaboration among different labs that can share their expertise, and large meetings like ECFGs provide the opportunity to meet and share results, and discuss new collaborations. More often, the interesting part of these conferences takes place behind the scenes, with scientists sharing results and discussing their recent results during lunches, poster sessions, or coffee breaks.

We hope that attendants will return home with new ideas, new contacts, new friends, and the burning desire to go back to the bench to try new experiments. If they do so, then ECFG12 will be a success and will compensate all the effort that we have dedicated to the organization of the conference.

Category: Community, Conference, Funding, Genetics, PLOS Genetics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

This week in PLOS Biology

Berman Synopsis Figure FINAL

The antifungal drug fluconazole induces Candida albicans to form a novel cell
type—a ‘‘trimera’’—that contains two simultaneously dividing nuclei. Mitotic
spindles (green) are shown segregating sister nucleoli (red). Image by Benjamin D. Harrison.

In PLOS Biology this week you can read about neurons involved in circadian rhythms, decision-making in rats, modulation of a key cancer cell pathway, glucocorticoid receptor function and anti-fungal drug-resistance.

  • Yeast infections can be at best annoying, and at worst life-threatening. Unlike bacterial infections, there are relatively few drugs available to treat them. One of the most commonly used is Fluconazole, but resistance to this drug is increasing. In a research article this week (with accompanying synopsis), Benjamin Harrison, Judith Berman, and colleagues showed that Fluconazole may actually unwittingly collude in the steps leading to resistance. When Fluconazole was used to treat yeast (Candida albicans) infections in the ears of mice, some yeast cells showed abnormal growth, forming ‘trimeras’ of three-lobed cells. The progeny of these trimeras (yeasts reproduce by budding) had abnormal numbers of chromosomes, increasing the odds of some cells containing large numbers of drug-resistance genes.


  • The glucocorticoid receptor (GR) is a transcription factor expressed in almost every cell in the vertebrate body. It binds steroid hormones from the glucocorticoid family, which are often used in a therapeutic capacity. After binding these molecules, GR has two different modes of action – transactivation and transrepression. In an article in this week’s PLOS Biology Gordon L. Hager and colleagues (with an accompanying synopsis) attempt to clarify GR’s different activites. Their results challenge the prevailing view that GR’s dimerization state (whether the receptor exists as a single molecule or two tightly bound ones) determines whether it initiates transactivation or transrepression. As transactivation is linked to many of the side effects that GCs cause when used therapeutically, a deeper understanding of these mechanisms could have clinical relevance.




  • The RAS/MAPK pathway was the focus of research by Dariel Ashton-Beaucage, Marc Therrien and colleagues. This pathway has a notable involvement in cancer as mutations in the components of the pathway are associated with uncontrolled cell proliferation. A global screen in Drosophila cells using RNAi to systematically knock down genes identifies a large group of transcription and splicing factors that modulate RAS/MAPK signalling by altering the expression of MAPK.


  • How do you prioritise decisions? Irene Avila & Shih-Chieh Lin looked at neurons in the brains of rats that determine responses to motivationally salient stimuli (those which are related to important outcomes). Their study shows that neurons in a region of the brain called the basal forebrain (BF) play a major role in determining the speed of decisions. When a stimulus (white noise or clicking) preceded a reward, decision-making speeds were increased. This research has implications for the potential role of BF neurons in neurological conditions characterised by slow reaction times, such as dementia and schizophrenia. More information is available in an accompanying synopsis.


  • The circadian clock runs as an intricate molecular oscillator in many separate cells, but these need to be synchronised in order to provide a consensus signal to control behaviour and other circadian traits. This syncing job is known to be done by the Pigment Dispersing Factor (PDF) neuropeptide signalling pathway. A study of Drosophila circadian neurons, by Adam Seluzicki, Ravi Allada and colleagues reveals that the PDF pathway splits in two, independently using cyclic AMP to sync circadian clocks via protein kinase A and to acutely control neuronal excitability, possibly via a cyclic nucleotide-gated channel.


Category: Biology, Cancer, Cell biology, Cell signalling, Infectious disease, Molecular biology, Neuroscience, PLOS Biology | Leave a comment

Collective behaviour, RAS and DNA repair, Semaphorin’s role in reproduction: this week in PLOS Biology



  • Systems biology looks at the big picture of complex interactions within biological systems; one example is collective behaviour, where a system comprising multiple entities operates with no centralised control. Examples of this can be seen from the cellular level (groups of patrolling immune cells on the prowl for pathogens) to groups of animals (birds flying in flocks that turn in the sky in perfect synchrony). In an Essay this week Deborah Gordon describes how environmental constraints (such as operating costs) may have shaped the evolution of collective behaviour. She argues that similar evolutionary pressures have produced similar collective behaviour in groups from molecules to cells to whole animals. Ants are used here as an example, as a large, diverse and extremely successful taxon that is well known for its collective behaviour.


  • A mark of a cancerous tumour is unregulated cell growth, potentially involving damage to the DNA of the cancer cells. However, in order to be successful and proliferate, cancer cells need to avoid the resulting senescence. In a Research Article this week, Alain Nepveu and colleagues identify a alternative workaround -  the presence of an oncogenic ‘RAS’ gene heightens the ability of cells to repair damage to their DNA (specifically targeting the type of damage caused by oxidative stress).


  • The semaphorins are a group of proteins present in cell membranes and responsible for diverse signalling functions. During the development of an embryo, they guide the development of blood vessels and neurons. However, whether these proteins continue to have any effects in the adult brain has been unclear. A new study by Paolo Giacobini, Vincent Prevot and colleagues suggests they do have a role: in mice they seem to be involved the essential regulation of reproduction – semaphorin molecules secreted by endothelial cells control axon growth and promote the timely release of a key hormone called Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH).


Category: Biology, Cancer, Cell biology, Cell signalling, PLOS Biology, Systems biology | Leave a comment

Welcoming three new Deputy Editors-in-Chief at PLOS Computational Biology

We’re thrilled to announce the appointment of three new Deputy Editors-in-Chief (DEICs) for PLOS Computational Biology: Sebastian Bonhoeffer, Jason Papin and Olaf Sporns.

As well-respected and committed Deputy Editors, Sebastian, Jason and Olaf have been key members of the editorial board for a number of years, and we’re delighted to welcome them to their new roles. Their areas of expertise represent PLOS Computational Biology’s broad scope, and as DEICs they will help Editor-in-Chief Ruth Nussinov shape the journal’s Editorial Board, scope and policies.

Here’s a bit more about each of our new DEICs.

Sebastian Bonhoeffer

Image credit: Sebastian Bonhoeffer

Sebastian Bonhoeffer is Full Professor of Theoretical Biology at the ETH Zurich. Following studies in music in Basel, and physics in Munich and Vienna, he then moved to Oxford to do a PhD with Martin Nowak and Robert May at the Department of Zoology. His research focuses on using population biological models to understand fundamental biological processes. He has worked extensively on mathematical models describing the population dynamics of virus infections within infected individuals.

BioMedical Engineering, UVa.

Image credit: Jason Papin

Jason Papin is on the faculty of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia.  He received his BS, MS, and PhD in Bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego. His research group develops methods to integrate high-throughput data and generate predictive computational models to address challenges in metabolic engineering, infectious disease, and cancer.


Image credit: Olaf Sporns

After receiving an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, Olaf Sporns earned a PhD in neuroscience at Rockefeller University and then conducted postdoctoral work at The Neurosciences Institute in New York and San Diego. Currently he is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington. His main research area is theoretical and computational neuroscience, with a focus on complex brain networks.

We’d like to thank Sebastian, Jason and Olaf for their hard work for the journal over the past few years. Please join us in congratulating them on their new roles!

As a community journal, PLOS Computational Biology is your journal, and we want to hear from you. Please send your thoughts on the journal to ploscompbiol[at] or add them as comments to this blog post. We’re always happy to receive them.

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Understanding allostery, constructing structural pathways and exploring a new trend in data integration: the PLOS Comp Biol February issue

Here’s our pick of the best PLOS Computational Biology content for February.

The capacity of biological molecular data acquisition is growing faster than our ability to understand the relationships between molecules in a cell. There are multiple databases that store and organize these molecular data, yet emerging fundamental questions about the functions of these molecules in hierarchical cellular networks are poorly addressed. In a Perspective, Boris Kholodenko and colleagues explore recent advances in the development of publically available databases that help us analyze signal integration and processing by reconstructing multilayered networks that specify biological responses in both model organisms and human cells.

The Speed Boat activity: using interactive games to inspire creativity and explore challenges in computational biology. Image Credit: Jennifer A. Cham and the EMBL-EBI Industry Programme Agri-Food Workshop participants.

The February issue image depicts the Speed Boat activity: using interactive games to inspire creativity and explore challenges in computational biology. From Pavelin et al. Image Credit: Jennifer A. Cham and the EMBL-EBI Industry Programme Agri-Food Workshop participants.

Structural pathways are important because they provide insight into signaling mechanisms, help understand the mechanism of disease-related mutations, and assist in drug discovery. Ozbabacan et al. construct the IL-1 structural pathway and map oncogenic mutations and SNPs. They show that modeling of protein-protein interactions on a large scale can provide accurate, structural atom-level detail of signaling pathways in the human cell and help delineate the mechanism through which a mutation leads to disease.

Numerous approaches have been undertaken over the last 50 years in an effort to explain allostery. Chung-Jung Tsai and Ruth Nussinov survey points of view on allostery in a Perspective, synthesizing them via a mathematical model in order to obtain a coherent understanding of the question of how allostery works. They address this question from three standpoints: thermodynamics, free energy landscape of population shift, and structure; all with exactly the same allosteric descriptors.


Category: Biology, Cell signalling, Computational biology, Data, Education, Molecular biology, PLOS Computational Biology, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Call for blogs!

Is there a book that motivated you to become a scientist, or to research a certain aspect of genetics? Or perhaps your perception of science has been altered through something you’ve read? How far do you think the lives of researchers today have been influenced by learning about the lives of those in the past? We want to hear from you!

Jane Gitschier’s bookshelf

Inspired by the new Deep Reads series, kicked off in December with the article “Recommendations from Jane Gitschier’s Bookshelf”, PLOS Genetics would like to hear about the books that have inspired you as a scientist and your views of science in literature. We hope to discover how science, more specifically within the fields of genetics and genomics, is portrayed and its relationship to the wider community. To do this, we invite you to select your favourite genetics-themed book  (fiction or non-fiction) and write a short review, relating the piece back to your own experiences as a scientist, whether you are studying or embarking on a career in science.

Selected posts will be published on PLOS Biologue and should be no more than 800 words with one or two images. They should address the questions outlined above, and relate to a book (either fiction or non-fiction) with a genetics/genomics component.

PLOS Biologue publishes under the Open Access Creative Commons Attribution license. Please ensure that the image(s) you use, especially if taken from other sources, fall under this license or are in the public domain.

Please send entries to by 14th March, 2014 and we’ll be in touch if yours is chosen.

We look forward to reading about the books that have motivated you!

Category: Announcement, Blog, Books, Genetics, Outreach, PLOS Genetics, Review | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Fish Fins and Fingers” Feeding Frenzy

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001773

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001773

How did we first acquire the limbs that allowed us to crawl onto dry land? Could the fins of our fishy ancestors hold previously undiscovered clues? A recent research article by Denis Duboule and colleagues published in PLOS Biology (and an accompanying Synopsis), attempted to shed more light on this fascinating topic.

The authors found that the genes and regulatory architecture necessary for digit patterning are present in fish (and therefore presumably in our last common ancestor); however some essential elements for actually forming digits are missing, and this functionality has been subsequently “retrofitted” in land-dwellers. The article has received over 7000 views since it was first published on January 21st, so here we take a look at some of the accompanying media interest.


Los Angeles Times

LA Times science writer Geoffrey Mohan gave some background to the debate of how fish could have evolved to walk on land, mentioning previous discoveries which have provided some pieces to the puzzle. “There have been tantalizing finds, including Tiktaalik, a prehistoric fish with shoulder and pelvis characteristics of a tetrapod, or four-legged animal. Modern genetics since has added evidence to supplement the fossil record.”


BBC News

BBC science reporter Melissa Hogenboom provided a detailed summary of the study, but also sought some expert opinions on whether the model organism used in the study (the zebrafish) is really the right fish for the job. Professor Jenny Clack, of the University of Cambridge explained “We know that this animal, and by inference its relatives… lack some of the developmental stages that make digits in tetrapods”. Prof. Clack suggests that zebrafish were not the best choice for this experiment, calling into question what can really be inferred from the study. discussed the Hox genes which are necessary for both fins and limbs to form, but which Duboule and colleagues found behave differently in fish and land animals.  “When inserted into transgenic mouse embryos, the fish Hox genes were only active in the mouse arm but not in the digits, showing that the fish DNA lacks essential genetic elements for digit formation”.



Category: Biology, Developmental biology, Epigenetics, Evolution, News, PLOS Biology, Publishing, Research | Leave a comment

Dynamics of leadership in dog packs, communication in the cerebral cortex and modelling anti-tumour immunity: the PLOS Comp Biol January issue

Here is our selection of highlights for PLOS Computational Biology’s January issue.

PLOS Comp Biol Featured Image for January. Image Credit: Zsuzsa Ákos & Máté Nagy

PLOS Comp Biol Featured Image for January. Image Credit: Zsuzsa Ákos & Máté Nagy

The movement of a pack of Hungarian Vizslas was tracked by researchers from Oxford University and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences using high-resolution GPS harnesses in order to determine the dynamics of leadership roles, individual social ranks and personality traits. The authors found that the dogs’ movements were measurably influenced by underlying social hierarchies. Dogs that consistently took the lead were more responsive to training, more controllable, older and more aggressive than the dogs that tended to follow.

A fundamental question in systems neuroscience is how the structural connectivity of the cerebral cortex shapes global communication. More specifically Bratislav Mišić et al. found that much of global communication was mediated by a “rich club” of hub regions, which are areas of the brain comprised of densely interconnected nodes. The paper describes how these regions attract the most signal traffic and have more connections than non-rich club regions. Furthermore, a number of these regions were significantly under-congested, which suggests how connectivity can actively shape information flow. Overall, the results reveal a dynamic aspect of the global information processing architecture and the critical role played by the so-called “rich club” of hub nodes.

Recent advances in cancer immunotherapy stem from increasing the number of tumour-infiltrating immune cells, which is accomplished by inhibiting immune checkpoints or adoptive T cell therapy. David J. Klinke used computational methods to identify potential mechanisms present within the tumour microenvironment that limit the efficacy of anti-tumour immunity. The results will help identify design constraints for engineering better pre-clinical models of breast cancer.

Category: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Opening Up Data Access, Not Just Articles


Illustration credit: Ainsley Seago.

For those who’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that we just published an interesting Perspective in PLOS Biology from Dominique Roche and colleagues that provides some practical hints on how to improve public data archiving for scientific research.

And if you’ve been even more on the ball, you’ll also have seen the recent announcement of PLOS’ new Data Policy and subsequent Update on the PLOS website.

The new Data Policy will be implemented for manuscripts submitted on, or after, March 1st. The main change is that all PLOS journals will require that all manuscripts have an accompanying data availability statement for the data used in that piece of research. We’re well aware that this may prove to be a challenge, but we think that this thorny issue needs to be tackled head-on. Ultimately, an Open Access paper for which the underlying data are not available doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Roche and colleagues raise some important and interesting points in their perspective and do a fine job of detailing the benefits to the scientific community of making data available. But for the eagle-eyed you’ll note an incongruity between their suggestion that a longer embargo period might be necessary before data need to be made available for some subjects, while the PLOS policy won’t make that distinction.

We don’t all have to agree here, and for the short term this may mean that some choose to send their research somewhere that permits them to keep their data under wraps. But funding agencies are also moving more towards our viewpoint, implementing requirements that data be made available. Whether researchers like it or not, this is something that needs to be addressed; it’s time to start ensuring there are better lab, university and institution practices for the storage and archiving of pertinent data.

If what we really want to see is optimal advancement of science, then open access to research means open access to as much as possible associated with the paper and not just the paper itself.  What should such openness include?  Well – probably everything – from methods to code to materials to equipment.  But without a doubt a key component of openness is access to the data behind a study.  Access to data facilitates reproducibility and testing of a papers conclusions and methods and also enables new discoveries to be made without the expense of redoing the experiments.   We believe that the more open we all are about open data, the more we discuss the benefits and challenges,  and the more we shift the bar towards openness, the better off all of science will be.


Roche DG, Lanfear R, Binning SA, Haff TM, Schwanz LE, et al. (2014). Troubleshooting Public Data Archiving: Suggestions to Increase Participation. PLoS Biology, 12 (1): e1001779. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001779


More posts on PLOS Biologue about data:

“Dude, where’s my data?” by Roli Roberts

“Improving data access at PLOS” By John Chodacki

“Dealing with data” by Theo Bloom


Category: Biology, Data, PLOS Biology | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments