Daily briefing: Subterranean biosphere contains billions of tonnes of life

“A whole new reservoir of life on Earth”. Plus: Voyager 2 goes interstellar and the shrinking half-life of a scientific career.

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Illustration of the voyager 2 probe

Voyager 2 launched in 1977 and was later joined in space by its twin, Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

Voyager 2 reaches interstellar space

After 41 years of exploring the Solar System, NASA’s Voyager 2 has crossed into interstellar space, sailing beyond the reach of the Sun’s influence. Signals from the craft suggest that it crossed the boundary of the heliosphere on 5 November. It now joins its twin, Voyager 1, which made the passage in 2012.

Nature | 2 min read

Subterranean biosphere contains billions of tonnes of life

Samples taken from boreholes 5 kilometres deep suggest that the underground ecosystem contains 70% of Earth’s bacteria and archaea. Scientists estimate that between 15 billion and 23 billion tonnes of micro-organisms live in this virtually unexplored region. Some of the microbes have been alive for thousands of years, and survive on methane in the absence of sunlight. “It’s like finding a whole new reservoir of life on Earth,” says microbiologist Karen Lloyd.

The Guardian | 7 min read

Topological-physics pioneer dies

Theoretical physicist Shoucheng Zhang died on 1 December at the age of 55. Zhang was among the first to describe ‘topological insulators’ — materials long known to be insulators yet which are able to conduct electricity on their outer surface. “He was a legend,” says materials scientist Claudia Felser.

Nature | 3 min read


Automatic-design tools for synthetic biology

Computer-aided systems are helping researchers to create genetic circuits to order. They automate the process by which researchers can program cells — especially bacteria and yeast — to carry out specific actions, such as activating a particular enzyme or churning out a certain protein. Discover the growing collection of circuit-design tools that are changing synthetic biology.

Nature | 7 min read

The handicraft of experimentation

Most science students enter university with years of screen time under their belts, but less experience developing the crucial lab skills of touch and object manipulation. Three scientists explore how chefs, dancers and potters might help to close this ‘haptic gap’ and the impact it has on reproducibility.

Nature | 5 min read

The shrinking half-life of a scientific career

Science careers are getting shorter, and fewer researchers are achieving “full careers”, finds a study of astronomers, ecologists and roboticists. The half-life of a scientific career — the time it takes for half of a cohort to leave the field — has shortened from 35 years in the 1960s to only 5 years in 2010. Meanwhile, the number of researchers who never achieve lead-author status has risen from 25% to 60%. The shift is partly due to the rise in short-term postdoctoral contracts and other temporary supporting roles that never develop into more-permanent employment.

Inside Higher Ed | 5 min read

Reference: PNAS paper

Report harassment without getting burned

“Don't expect anyone to act in anything other than self interest.” That’s the advice from language researcher Steven Piantadosi, who resigned from the University of Rochester and is suing the school over its handling of alleged sexual harassment by a professor there. He takes to Twitter to recommend ten ways of protecting yourself when reporting sexual harassment in academia.

Twitter | 3 min read


“You don’t want to have a system that gives people reasons to just randomly experiment on people.”

Molecular biologist Michael Eisen ponders the dicey question of how — and whether — to publish the controversial work of CRISPR-baby scientist He Jiankui. (Wired)

I wanted to update readers about a paper we covered in the Briefing in November suggesting that oceans are warming at a rate consistent with worst-case estimates. The authors have since flagged errors in the paper, which might mean that uncertainties in ocean heat content are substantially underestimated.

Thanks for reading!

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

Nature Briefing

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