Daily briefing: Scientists reconstruct butterfly evolutionary history with CRISPR

Researchers discover how monarch butterflies can eat toxic milkweed, then they give the same power to fruit flies. Plus: the quantum gold rush and privacy hurdles for Facebook research.

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Mark Zuckerberg waits to begin a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees in Washington, DC.

Mark Zuckerberg faced questions over data privacy and misinformation during marathon hearings before the US Congress in April 2018.Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

Privacy hurdles for Facebook research

Privacy problems are threatening to scupper an innovative research partnership between Facebook and academia. Facebook has promised to provide a treasure trove of data that could help social scientists understand the service’s effects on democracy. But Facebook is finding it almost impossible to share all the data it promised without risking its users’ privacy. Its systems were never set up to offer users from outside the company such extensive, but limited, access to the billions of records involved. The funders supporting the project are running out of patience. On the plus side, cracking the problem could smooth the way for future collaborations between scientists and social networks.

Nature | 7 min read

Malaria mosquitoes travel long-distance

Mosquitoes capable of carrying the malaria parasite can travel hundreds of kilometres a night by hitching a ride on the wind. Researchers in the Sahel region of Africa used sticky nets raised on helium balloons to capture mosquitoes flying as high as 290 metres above the ground. Travelling at that height means that the insects could be borne by the breeze up to 296 kilometres a night — much fartherway more than had been believed. The finding reveals how mosquito populations mysteriously reappear in the Sahel and could have significant repercussions for efforts to eradicate malaria from large areas.

Science | 3 min read

Go deeper with the expert perspective in the Nature News & Views article.

Reference: Nature paper

Butterfly evolution reconstructed with CRISPR

Researchers have painstakingly traced the mutations that allow monarch butterflies to thrive on a diet of toxic milkweed, then used CRISPR gene editing to give the same power to fruit flies. Evolutionary biologists uncovered three gene variations, which arose one after the other to make the butterflies ever more resistant to the milkweed’s poison. When the three mutations were spliced into the fruit-fly genome one at a time, scientists could observe the same resistance in them.

The New York Times | 5 min read

Reference: Nature paper


The quantum gold rush

Governments and large technology firms have long nurtured quantum research, and in the past few years have announced billions of dollars for the field. As their support has ramped up, outside investors have looked to get in early on a fledgling industry. A Nature analysis explores the investors betting on quantum technology.

Nature | 12 min read

Source: Nature analysis, including data from Quantum Computing Report, Boston Consulting Group, PitchBook and Crunchbase

Thanks goes to plankton

Plankton that evolved 170 million years ago pulled huge amounts of carbon and calcium ions from the seas to build their shells and skeletons. Today they still thrive, making up nearly 12% of the total biomass in the oceans. Their abundance has built a buffer for the ocean’s chemistry: when the water becomes more acidic, it dissolves some of the dead carbonate organisms on the sea floor, which raises the pH again, which begets more plankton… and so on. The cycle keeps the ocean environment cosily stable for the rest of us (or our ancestors) — which raises t he question of what might happen if climate change makes the ocean so acidic that the balance is broken.

Quanta | 9 min read

Reference: Nature Geoscience paper


Researchers study the ice of Skaftafell, on the southern edge of Vatnajökull, Iceland

Credit: Eric Kruszewski/NGS

A glaciologist photographs the inside of a moulin — a well-like structure — in Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier. A report from Iceland’s Committee on Climate Change warns that by the next century, none of the country’s glaciers will remain.

Nature’s pick of the best science images is this month dedicated to climate change — and the researchers who study it.


“The relentless drive for research excellence has created a culture in modern science that cares exclusively about what is achieved and not about how it is achieved.”

Wellcome’s director Jeremy Farrar says we need to reimagine how we do research (Wellcome blog post).

In an editorial, Nature commends the charity’s new venture to tackle the problem and calls for other funders and research-management societies to join in.

The short science-fiction stories in Nature’s Futures series often deliver a delightfully creative way of reconsidering science’s big ideas. In the case of this week’s story, ‘You will remember this’, it’s the concept of free will in a Universe where physics tells us the distinction between past, present and future are an illusion. I look forward to remembering that you will e-mail me with your opinion — of the story, the theory or the newsletter — at

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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