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Cartoon showing gut bacteria controlling a brain in a video game

Illustration by Fabio Buonocore

Evidence is building that the trillions of bacteria in the gut could have profound effects on the brain, and might be tied to a whole host of disorders. What was once a fringe theory — the gut–brain axis — is seeing an explosion of interest. Now, researchers are working to separate hope from hype to develop better and easier treatments for brain diseases.

Nature | 12 min read

Graphic showing possible pathways in mice through which bacteria in the gut could influence the brain.

Credit: Nik Spencer/Nature

A US court has voided the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s controversial scientific ‘transparency’ rule. The rule would have prevented the EPA from basing regulatory decisions on studies for which the full underlying data are not publicly available. It had been widely panned by researchers and science advocates, who said it was a Trojan horse aimed at preventing health and environmental regulations from going into effect.

The Washington Post | 4 min read

In May 2020, Justin Yerbury narrowly missed the cut for an annual grant funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council. Yerbury, who studies neurodegenerative disorders, has motor neuron disease. The feedback he received on his grant application showed that the assessors were underwhelmed by his publication record. “This made me mad,” Yerbury wrote on Twitter. “How could someone think that I could physically produce more than what I had done given my disability?” Yerbury has since successfully appealed the rejection and his case has prompted the Australian funding agency to revise its policies. His experience illustrates recent research showing the funding barriers facing researchers with disabilities or long-standing health conditions.

Nature Index | 9 min read

Reference: PLOS One paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

News

The devastation of the pandemic — millions of deaths, economic strife and unprecedented curbs on social interaction — has already had a marked effect on people’s mental health. Researchers worldwide are investigating the causes and impacts of this stress, and some fear that the deterioration in mental health could linger long after the pandemic has subsided. Ultimately, scientists hope that they will be able to use mountains of data being collected in studies about mental health to link the impact of particular control measures to changes in people’s well-being, and to inform the management of future pandemics.

Nature | 6 min read

Feature

The Russian COVID vaccine known as Sputnik V has only just published the positive results of its phase III trials, but President Vladimir Putin announced that it was approved all the way back in August. It’s just one example of how the Russian vaccine-development process marches to a different drum — sometimes to the consternation of the international scientific community. The New Yorker visits The Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology — where researchers inoculated themselves with their prototype vaccine — and investigates how Sputnik V came to be.

The New Yorker | 24 min read

Read more: COVID research updates: Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine shows high effectiveness (Nature | 1 min read) & Russia’s fast-track coronavirus vaccine draws outrage over safety (Nature | 6 min read, from August)

Opinion

Vaccine nationalism could thwart the world’s efforts to bring the coronavirus pandemic to an end, cautions World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Rich countries with just 16% of the world’s population have so far bought 60% of the vaccine supply. Meanwhile, a WHO initiative called COVAX, which aims to distribute the jabs equitably, is struggling to buy enough to cover just 20% of the population of poorer countries. Governments and companies should boost vaccine manufacturing and distribution, including through openly sharing intellectual property, says Tedros. The alternative is more suffering and the risk of new vaccine-resistant variants in unprotected populations. “Vaccine nationalism is not just morally indefensible. It is epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive,” he writes.

Foreign Policy | 7 min read

Features & opinion

Cartoon by James Gillray

James Gillray’s 1802 illustration explores fears about using cowpox to vaccinate against smallpox.Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, artists such as William Hogarth and James Gillray skewered the social and political tensions around emerging scientific, medical and technological ideas, from electricity to vaccination. Historian Patricia Fara explains the layers of meaning alongside some of the most notable examples.

Nature | 6 min read

Theoretical physicists are devising new solutions to a decades-long cosmic mismatch. Vacuum energy, caused by ‘virtual’ particles popping in and out of empty space, is thought to be behind the Universe’s ever-faster expansion. But quantum theory suggests a vacuum energy so massive that galaxies would never have formed. Theory’s inability to explain the vacuum energy’s oddly small measured value is known as the ‘cosmological constant problem’. Some theorists think this is a non-issue. Others are tweaking the fundamental theories and hypothesizing new ones (such as that space-time is made of foam). “It’s generally regarded as one of the most awkward, embarrassing, difficult problems in theoretical physics today,” says physicist Antonio Padilla.

Scientific American | 13 min read

Image of the week

Yellowknife Flurry

Nathan Myhrvold has a PhD in physics, was the chief technology officer at Microsoft for 14 years and founded a food company known for its high-resolution photographs. It all came together when he created a camera specifically to take the highest resolution photos ever of snowflakes. To keep them frozen long enough to be snapped, the snowflakes are captured on an artificial sapphire slide, which is less conductive than a normal glass microscope slide. The LED flash is cooler and a thousand times faster than a typical camera flash. (Smithsonian Magazine | 7 min read)Nathan Myhrvold/Modernist Cuisine Gallery, LLC





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