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The Interdisciplinary Research Collection

Accompanying the new PLOS ONE 10 Year Anniversary Collection: Interdisciplinary Research, PLOS ONE Senior Editor Renee Hoch discusses her article selections from the journal.

PLOS ONE was established as an inclusive journal that considers primary research in all scientific disciplines. In contrast to journals with defined subject area niches, this broad scope enables us to serve as a publishing platform for work that spans multiple disciplines. Over the past decade, PLOS ONE has published a wealth of interdisciplinary research that spans the gamut of disciplines, including the physical, chemical, life, and social sciences; we have also published several studies at the intersection of the arts and sciences. The Interdisciplinary Research Collection highlights 11 articles that exemplify the diversity of interdisciplinary research published in PLOS ONE. These articles illustrate how studies bridging different disciplines have made innovative contributions to scientific progress over the past decade.

The first article in the Collection, Long-Distance Interdisciplinarity Leads to Higher Scientific Impact, presents meta-research on interdisciplinary research published from 2000–2012. The authors discuss some of the challenges and advantages of collaborative research spanning multiple disciplines, investigate the relative “impact” (by citation frequency) of interdisciplinary research, and probe correlations between citation impact and “topical distance”, a measure of the relatedness between represented disciplines.

The rest of the Collection is comprised of primary research studies spanning different areas, as described briefly below.

Science and the humanities

First, we highlight a trio of articles at the intersection of science and the humanities. In The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood, mathematical phylogenetic modeling methods are used to investigate the origins of and relationships between folk tales from Europe, Asia, and Africa. This demonstrates how evolutionary analysis methods can be used in anthropological studies to identify cross-cultural interactions that may have shaped folklore or other traditions over time. In the next article of the Collection, modern chemical and proteomic approaches provided insight as to artistic resources and practices of ancient cultures: in GC/MS and proteomics to unravel the painting history of the lost Giant Buddhas of Bāmiyān (Afghanistan), the authors use gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, and proteomic methods to characterize the materials used in painting and restoration efforts for artifacts from the 4th to 6th century, A.D.

Stress, ecology, and conservation

The third of the articles combining science and the humanities also delves into the physiology of stress. The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response, addresses how listening to music impacts different aspects of the human stress response, looking at endocrine, autonomic, cognitive, and emotional outcomes.

Complementing this study, Physiological Stress and Refuge Behavior by African Elephants looks at behavioral aspects of stress. This study, which also crosses into ecology and conservation science, investigates wildlife responses to chronic stress by examining how glucocorticoid metabolite levels correlate with habitat preferences and space use patterns.

Adaptation, stress biology, evolution, and ecology have been integrated in a wealth of studies addressing questions in conservation science. Next in the Collection, we highlight an article by Benz et al. in which ecological modeling is used to address questions regarding the conservation of endangered plant species. In Seed Dispersal and Establishment of Endangered Plants on Oceanic Islands: The Janzen-Connell Model, and the Use of Ecological Analogues, the authors study the effect of missing seed dispersers in the decline of a plant population. They evaluate germination and survival patterns of a critically endangered plant to examine predictions of a widely studied ecological model, and then assess whether introduction of an ecological analogue for extinct frugivores may positively impact seed dispersal patterns and germination success.

Physical sciences, bioengineering, and life sciences

While the physical sciences and engineering have historically been fairly separate from the biomedical sciences with regard to science education and training, the convergence of these fields has enabled notable advances in fields such as robotics and clinical biomaterials research. For example, physics and materials science innovations in nanotechnology have been applied in vivo resulting in exciting advances in drug delivery and prosthetic implants. The development and validation of novel materials for clinical use requires in-depth analyses of the interactions between the engineered nanomaterials and relevant biological/biochemical substrates. In Quantitative Characterization of the Influence of the Nanoscale Morphology of Nanostructured Surfaces on Bacterial Adhesion and Biofilm Formation, the authors investigate the physical and chemical properties of nanostructured titania thin films, and how these properties impact protein absorption, bacterial adhesion, and biofilm formation. The authors comment on the implications of their quantitative data for future studies aimed at selectively modulating mammalian versus bacterial cell adhesion to the films.

As another example of interdisciplinary work combining the physical and life sciences, we highlight a 2007 study integrating physics, chemistry, and mycology: Ionizing Radiation Changes the Electronic Properties of Melanin and Enhances the Growth of Melanized Fungi. Here, the authors examined effects of radiation on the physical and chemical properties of melanin, and on the growth rate of melanized fungus. In light of their findings, they present new hypotheses as to biochemical functions of melanin and the potential of melanized fungus to convert radiation into metabolic energy.

Genomics and clinical sciences

The advent of high throughput sequencing sparked an expansive array of interdisciplinary microbiome research combining genomics, physiology, immunology, and neuroscience. Microbiome studies in human participants and model organisms have led to new models and theories as to interactive relationships between different physiological systems. The Gut-Brain Axis in Healthy Females: Lack of Significant Association between Microbial Composition and Diversity with Psychiatric Measures, queries a hypothesis stemming from prior studies regarding the impact of the gut microbiome on brain functions involved in behavior, emotion, and cognition. Kleiman et al. did not find any significant correlation between the gut microbial composition and psychiatric measures (e.g., of anxiety, depression, stress) in healthy participants. While surprising in light of published animal studies, these negative findings in human subjects provided important data for the community in the context of ongoing research in this area.

High throughput sequencing has also advanced several areas of clinical research, for instance on genetic disorders, rare diseases, and clinical diagnostics. Such efforts have given rise to new, unbiased methods of detecting and differentiating specific pathogens, as reported in Direct Metagenomic Detection of Viral Pathogens in Nasal and Fecal Specimens Using an Unbiased High-Throughput Sequencing Approach. This seminal work published in 2009 combined genomics, clinical diagnostics, and virology, and demonstrated that high throughput sequencing can be used to identify viral pathogens from clinical samples. Since publication of this highly cited work, whole genome sequencing and next generation sequencing have been applied in a variety of clinical settings both for research purposes and patient care. For some rare diseases, this is now a common element of clinical diagnostic assessments.

Proteomics, bioinformatics, and evolution

The availability of large datasets has accelerated research in many fields, and has afforded tremendous opportunities for bioinformatic and computational research, for example addressing questions relevant to disease risk factors and evolutionary relationships. In The Evolutionary Dynamics of Protein-Protein Interaction Networks Inferred from the Reconstruction of Ancient Networks, we highlight a study in which interactome datasets are used to study functional protein networks across seven model organisms. Analyses of these networks led the authors to develop a mathematical model describing protein-protein interaction network dynamics from an evolutionary perspective.

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