Daily briefing: First ever genetically engineered phage treatment halts life-threatening infection

Engineered virus tackles drug-resistant infection, how to communicate uncertainty and third deadly Japanese earthquake study retracted.

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A member of a rescue team runs on a street cracked by an earthquake in Mashiki, Japan

A rescue worker runs on a street cracked by a powerful earthquake that struck Kumamoto prefecture on April 16, 2016.Credit: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty

Earthquake study retracted over false data

A study concluding that a 2016 earthquake in Kumamoto, Japan, was curtailed by the thick magma of a nearby volcano has been retracted. A Kyoto University investigation found that the paper contained falsified data and manipulated images, although it stopped short of determining whether the errors were deliberate. This is the third paper about the Kumamoto earthquake to be retracted: two articles were pulled after an Osaka University investigation found they were based on fabricated data.

Nature | 3 min read

Black academics publish one-fifth of South Africa’s research

The proportion of scientific articles published by non-white academics in South Africa has risen almost tenfold since the end of apartheid in 1994, to about one-third. Black academics, specifically, authored 18% of research papers in 2014. But academic publishing remains disproportionately white: white people comprise 8% of the country’s 54 million inhabitants, but occupy about half of university posts.

Nature | 4 min read

Phage therapy halts child’s life-threatening infection

Fifteen-year-old Isabelle Carnell faced almost certain death when her long-running drug-resistant Mycobacterium abscessus infection accelerated following a double-lung transplant in September 2017. Her doctors turned to phage therapy, in which viruses are engineered to kill disease-causing bacteria. A tailor-made three-phage cocktail — the first genetically engineered phages ever used as a treatment — seemed to turn around the infection within days, although Carnell continues to need twice-daily infusions and topical doses.

Researchers stress that this is just one case: they can’t exclude the possibility that Carnell would have recovered on her own, and such custom treatments face practical hurdles. Nevertheless, the result is a bright spot for a controversial therapy.

Science | 6 min read

Go deeper into the state of phage therapy and this case in Nature Biotechnology (19 min read)

Reference: Nature Medicine paper


Belt and Road comes to Europe

The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s mega-plan for global infrastructure, is leaving its mark all over Asia, Africa and South America. But the initiative is also reaching into Europe, kicking off projects in central and eastern countries that have long felt neglected by the European Union. In the third of our features exploring how Belt and Road is remaking the world, explore why some Europeans are questioning the wisdom of handing the keys to critical infrastructure to state-owned enterprises from China.

Nature | 11 min read

A wrong turn on driverless cars

Researchers must stop getting distracted by beginner-level philosophical dilemmas and industry talking points to answer “the most important question that we should be asking” about self-driving cars, argues regulatory policy researcher Ashley Nunes. When most people who die in road fatalities can’t afford newer cars with the advanced safety features already developed, who really stands to gain from the life-saving potential of going driverless?

Nature | 5 min read

How to talk about the things you don’t know

Communicating uncertainty poorly — or ignoring it altogether — can have disastrous consequences, argue psychologist Anne Marthe van der Bles and colleagues. For example, in the “dodgy dossier” that preceded the United Kingdom’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “the removal of the uncertainties was considered key to paving the way to war”. van der Bles and her colleagues offer advice to researchers on how to communicate uncertainty, including breaking down your communication in a structured way and recognizing how terms such as ‘very likely’ can be misinterpreted.

Royal Society Open Science | 62 min read (or try the 3-min summary thread by author David Spiegelhalter on Twitter)


“I'm going to rescue my year’s work.”

Cancer researcher Marina Simian will use the money that she won on the Argentinian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? to replace unreliable government funding in her lab. (Buenos Aires Times)

Thank you to all of you who sent me their favourite writing implements! I particularly liked earth scientist Larry McKenna’s three-part system of “mark making (mechanical pencil, 0.5 mm), mark taking (a mechanical eraser, well used) and mark holding (engineering pad)” — which he gives as a set to every advisee he sees off to grad school. Tell me about your best-ever academic gift — or any other feedback — at

Thanks for reading!

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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