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Two forms of thalidomide. Molecular models of the S- (left) and R- (right) forms of the drug thalidomide.

The two enantiomers of thalidomide have different effects inside the body.Credit: Alfred Pasieka/SPL

A common lab technique has been modified so that it can distinguish molecules that exist as two mirror-image structures. Identifying these chiral molecules is a crucial (and often difficult) part of drug discovery because each version can have a very different effect on the body. Within minutes, a modified mass spectrometer — a workhorse of chemistry — can separate chiral molecules and identify how much of each version is in a mixture.

Nature | 3 min read

Reference: Science paper

Physicians often don’t prescribe a cheap, lifesaving treatment for diarrhoea because they think their patients don’t want it. That’s the result of a large study looking at the use of oral rehydration solution in India. A survey showed that clinics, pharmacies and carers of sick children are mostly aware of the efficacy of the salty-sweet solution in preventing dehydration and reducing the risk of death in cases of diarrhoeal disease, but that it is often not prescribed. If an actor posing as the father of a sick child expressed a preference for the oral rehydration solution, they were twice as likely to get it as those who mentioned no treatment. The study highlights “the gap between knowing the right thing and doing the right thing,” says health economist David Levine.

Nature | 3 min read

Reference: Science paper

A key symbolic agreement between China and the United States to cooperate on science and technology looks set to put in a holding pattern for a second time. The decades-old pact, which is usually renewed every five years, was due to expire on 27 August last year, but was given a 6-month extension. Now it appears it will be given another short-term extension to allow more time to settle amendments requested by both sides. The agreement lays the groundwork for cooperation on research in a broad range of fields, including health, the environment and energy. Observers worry that science will suffer in both countries if the pact is not renewed.

Nature | 5 min read

Features & opinion

Table of Contents

Scientists are seeking a way to circumvent one of the fundamental processes of life: ‘fixing’ nitrogen from the air into compounds that can be used by plants. Whether achieved by microbes in the soil or by chemical-fertilizer makers, this process feeds the world. Now researchers are trying to use gene editing to transfer the ability from microbes to plants, giving plants the ability to fertilize themselves. The hurdles are enormous, but if it can be achieved, the discovery could help shrink the enormous environmental footprint of synthetic fertilizers.

The New Yorker | 13 min read

Author Gareth Owens was inspired by a “month-long bad trip” during his own COVID-caused coma to consider what we might inflict on a self-aware AI in the latest short story for Nature’s Futures series.

Nature | 6 min read

Researchers have repurposed mutations found in cancer cells to boost immune cells’ ability to penetrate and kill tumours in mice. Even a small number of these turbocharged T cells “were able to cause durable, complete remissions of very difficult-to-treat tumours”, geneticist and study co-author Jaehyuk Choi tells the Nature Podcast. Plus, scientists have cracked a long-standing riddle about how an S-shaped lawn sprinkler rotates underwater.

Nature Podcast | 35 min listen

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Quote of the day

A sabbatical helped medical researcher Brandon Brown — who used to get up at 4.30 a.m. to check his e-mails — figure out how to find a better work-life balance, reconnect with the real world and remember why he got into academia in the first place. (Nature | 7 min read)

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