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Fragments of a skull and jawbone, missing the right eye socket and cheerk, assembled on a black stand.

Vittrup Man’s skull was shattered by at least eight blows.Credit: Stephen Freiheit via Fischer A., et al./PLoS ONE

A man who ended up in a Danish bog 5,000 years ago with his skull crushed by a wooden club might have come from far-off northern Scandinavia. Carbon and nitrogen isotope levels in bones and teeth, which can reveal aspects of diet, suggest that ‘Vittrup Man’ had transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming in his late teens. And genetic analysis shows he was related to hunter-gatherers from what is now Norway and Sweden, not to the farming communities of Denmark. “Maybe once he came of age, his role in society was to establish connections with farmers that lived across the sea,” says bioarchaeologist Thomas Booth.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: PLOS One paper & Nature paper

Microplastics might not be a reliable way to define the ‘Anthropocene’ — a new geological epoch mooted to have begun when humans started altering the planet. Researchers examined three lakes in Latvia and found that the tiniest particles of plastic pollution work their way down into sediments that formed long before plastic production began in the 1950s. This could also preclude the possibility of using microplastic content to measure the age of geological sediments.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Science Advances paper

An alternative to the CRISPR gene-editing system called MEGA-CRISPR has been designed to edit messenger RNA (mRNA) rather than DNA. MEGA (multiplexed effector guide arrays) uses an mRNA-cutting enzyme instead of Cas9, which targets DNA. Because mRNA is transient — it is generated when DNA is translated into proteins — it avoids the potential risks of inducing permanent changes. A treatment based on engineered immune cells (CAR T cells) became better at shrinking tumours in mice after MEGA was used to boost the T cells’ efficiency.

Nature | 4 min read

Read more: Move over, CRISPR: RNA-editing therapies pick up steam (Nature | 5 min read)

Reference: Cell paper

A lack of funding from drug companies and governments is causing a ‘brain drain’ of scientists researching antimicrobial resistance (AMR), says the AMR Industry Alliance, an industry body. Since the 1990s, the workforce has halved, leading to a drop in research papers, and fewer drugs in development. At the same time, drug-resistant infections are undermining treatments that we have come to rely on and causing over a million deaths each year. An AMR report recommends new market incentives for antimicrobials, and training more early-career researchers to replenish the workforce before their knowledge and expertise disappear.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: AMR Industry Alliance report

Features & opinion

Clinical geneticists are delivering rapid DNA sequencing that means their critically ill patients get timely and personalized treatment. Even a decade ago, whole-genome analysis was slow, expensive and unlikely to deliver actionable results. Now, some diagnoses arrive in less than a week, and the record is just over seven hours. When an ultra-rapid response is needed in oncology, clinicians can sometimes classify tumours in under an hour. Lowering costs for everyone and speeding up interpretation using artificial-intelligence tools are the next steps.

Nature | 13 min read

Taking a sabbatical from science to work in government can be surprisingly fruitful, argues metascientist Jordan Dworkin, who helped to launch the Sabbaticals in Service project to support other scientists in making such moves. These forays into policy can bring much-needed scientific expertise into policymaking and build lasting relationships between agencies and academics. For scientists, the benefits include identifying unexplored research areas, learning to vividly communicate findings to decision-makers, and gaining reputation and visibility, both in academia and outside it.

Nature | 4 min read

Chemistry might be unique among the sciences in allowing a quantitative approach to its history, argues science writer Philip Ball. The approach is exemplified by a study showing that the number of chemical compounds has grown exponentially between 1800 and 2015. “It is hard to imagine any comparable index to gauge the progress of physics or biology,” writes Ball. New ways to search historical archives include using artificial-intelligence techniques to compare texts. But these require material to be accessible: there are challenges in acquiring proprietary results from industry, for example.

Chemistry World | 4 min read

Image of the week

Marine biologist Jorge Palma peers through an aquarium being used to test artificial seagrass made from nylon and sisal.

This photograph by João Rodrigues of marine biologist Jorge Palma testing artificial seagrass made from nylon and sisal was commended in the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 awards. The image illustrated a 2023 BBC Wildlife Magazine feature on how Palma and his team are trying to save short-snouted (Hippocampus hippocampus) and long-snouted (H. guttulatus) seahorses in Portugal, who depend on seagrass meadows. They are poor swimmers and cling to the strands to prevent being swept away. (João Rodrigues/Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024)

Quote of the day

A laboratory study of the voice boxes from three dead, stranded baleen whales — a humpback, minke and sei — reveals that whale song comes from a previously unknown method of sound production, says comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg. (Associated Press | 4 min read)

Reference: Nature paper

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