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Four months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, academics say they feel marooned, and abandoned by the international community. With limited prospects for research, many scientists have left or are still trying to find routes out, so they can continue their careers. Researchers say they have been stripped of their finances and academic freedoms and do not feel valued by the new government. Many also continue to fear being persecuted for their international connections, ethnicity or gender — or because they have been critical of the government — and some say they have been threatened with death or retribution by the Taliban.
Nature | 8 min read
So far, evidence is scarce and incomplete on the severity of the disease caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant is scarce and incomplete . Early results suggest a glimmer of hope: reports from South Africa have consistently noted a lower rate of hospitalization as a result of Omicron compared to the Delta variant. However, data from Denmark and England do not back this up. The jury is still out, and scientists emphasise that a rapidly spreading variant could dangerously strain health-care systems, even if the risk of severe disease or death is relatively low for any individual. “A small fraction of a very large number is still a large number,” says infectious-disease epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse. Much of the outcome will depend on external factors, such as rates of previous coronavirus infection and vaccination.
Nature | 6 min read
Researchers are sequencing more SARS-CoV-2 genomes than ever before, and this genomic surveillance is what enabled them to notice the Omicron variant so quickly. But researchers warn that there are still troubling gaps in the global genomic surveillance system. The proportion of positive cases that have been sequenced by labs varies widely between countries and even within a nation’s borders. Researchers are creating models to try to fill in the gaps.
Nature | 5 min read
Sicilian Rouge tomatoes are the first commercially available food edited with CRISPR-Cas9. Tokyo-based company Sanatech Seed used CRISPR to boost levels of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a popular supplement in Japan, in the tomatoes. There is little good evidence to support the use of GABA as a health supplement, but this could open the door to other nutritionally enhanced crops.
Nature Biotechnology | 9 min read
Researchers in Australia have described the first reported ‘true’ millipede to live up to its name. The animal has 1,306 legs — breaking the previous record of 750 legs — and was found 60 metres underground in a mining area of Western Australia. It is pale and blind, with a long, thread-like body comprising up to 330 segments. Researchers named the species Eumillipes persephone, after the Greek goddess of the underworld, Persephone. Entomologist Juanita Rodriguez says it probably evolved to be so long for better movement underground. “The more length you have, the more strength to propel forward,” she says.
The Guardian | 4 min read
Reference: Scientific Reports paper
Features & opinion
Researchers have long sought to study human developmental stages, but working with human embryos is technically and ethically fraught. Now, a new wave of stem-cell systems is enabling researchers to unpick what happens after an embryo implants in the uterus. “If we want to understand human-specific features, we really need to look at a human system,” says developmental biologist Naomi Moris.
Nature | 8 min read
Nadrian (Ned) Seeman is widely credited with being the first person to recognize that DNA can be used to design and build programmable nanostructures and nanomachines — an inspiration that came to him while pondering an M. C. Escher picture. With this new way of thinking about self-assembly, he helped to turn chemistry into an information science. Seeman, who has died aged 75, was a singular character. “I feel it’s no accident that DNA nanotechnology sprang forth from someone who took almost a perverse pleasure in thinking differently,” says his collaborator Erik Winfree.
Nature | 5 min read
A bond is formed between a diver on a far-off world and his animal companion in the latest short story for Nature’s Futures series.
Nature | 4 min read
In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons probe sent back some intriguing images of Pluto, showing strange polygonal patterns on the dwarf planet’s surface. This week, the Nature Podcast explores a new theory to explain these perplexing patterns.
Plus, the Nature Coronapod delves into the latest studies on the Omicron variant to take stock of where we are so far and address questions sent in by listeners.
Nature Podcast | 26 min listen & Nature Coronapod | 31 min read
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Today our camouflaged chum Leif Penguinson is concealed among the sheep in Derbyshire, UK. Can you find the penguin?
The answer will be in next week’s e-mail, all thanks to Briefing photo editor and penguin wrangler Tom Houghton.
This is our last regular Briefing together before I take a short break for the holidays. Look out for two special editions over the next two weeks, with a hand-picked round-up of the best science books of the season (exclusively for Briefing readers) and some more holiday treats. We’ll return to our normal routine on Tuesday, 4 January.
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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing
With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty, John Pickrell and Anna Nowogrodzki