Daily briefing: At 15, graphene is ready for prime time

The wonder material is on track to deliver on its commercial promise, a lab-made primordial soup yields RNA bases, and hooray! It’s the first Noble of 2019.

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William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza illustration

William Kaelin, Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza have together worked out how genes respond when oxygen is depleted.Credit: Ill. Niklas Elmedhed/Nobel Media

Medicine Nobel for discovery of how cells sense oxygen

Three researchers have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for describing how cells sense and respond to oxygen by switching genes on and off. Cancer researcher William Kaelin, physician-scientist Peter Ratcliffe and geneticist Gregg Semenza also won the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2016. Among the applications of their discovery is a better understanding of how the body reacts when oxygen levels drop owing to exercise or stroke, and efforts to manipulate the response to slow the growth of oxygen-hungry cancer tumours.

Nature | 3 min read

Gigantic Nile dam stirs border tensions

Ethiopia is constructing a gigantic dam on the River Nile that its government says will dramatically boost access to electricity for its citizens. But Egypt, which sits farther downstream, is concerned that filling the dam’s reservoir over five years will cause water shortages for its farmers. Egypt wants the filling to occur over seven years. Although neither side has been willing to budge so far, the countries are likely to find a compromise, says Ismail Serageldin, a former vice-president of the World Bank. “They will negotiate and meet somewhere in the middle.”

Nature | 5 min read

Lab-made soup yields RNA bases

Organic chemists have created in the lab the nucleobases, adenine, uracil, cytosine and guanine — known as A, U, C and G — that could have served as the building blocks of RNA on an early Earth. The team put basic molecules through a series of conditions that could have existed way back when, cycling them from wet to dry, from hot to cold, and from acidic to basic, with chemicals occasionally flowing between two ponds. The results add credence to the idea that life arose from self-replicating, RNA-based genes before organisms developed the ability to store genetic information in the molecule’s close relative, DNA.

Nature | 3 min read

Reference: Science paper


At 15, graphene is ready for prime time

Graphene, the one-atom-thick wonder material, can be described with a stack of superlatives: it’s the strongest, stiffest and most-conductive material ever measured, among other things. It even won its discoverers a Nobel prize in 2010. But, 15 years after it was discovered, how close is it to living up to its commercial promises? Nature Nanotechnology explores the graphene-based technologies on (or almost on) the market and finds that the material is on track to deliver.

Nature Nanotechnology | 12 min read

Read the whole collection: Graphene 15

“My complicity sickens me”

It’s high time that scholars learn to recognize abusive behaviour and how to tackle it, says psychologist Virginia Valian. Valian puts her own behaviour under the microscope by reconsidering her interactions with a colleague who was later found to have violated her department’s policies. And she shares how she will personally do things differently — and how we can, too.

Nature | 5 min read

Gender, race and field trips in South African anthropology

Archaeologist Nomawethu Hlazo speaks about her experiences as black female scientist in a mostly white male field, and her perspective on researching the origins of humanity in South Africa. “I’ve always wanted to change the world, but I thought I’d quietly do it in the lab,” she says. “But then I realized: that’s not how the world works. People need to know who you are, and they need to see you.”

Nature | 5 min read

Nobel by the numbers

Chemistry World has crunched the numbers and says that the average chemistry Nobel laureate is an American man in his late 50s (probably called Richard, John or Paul) who works at the University of California, Stanford or Caltech. His prizewinning work was published 16 or 17 years ago, in Nature or the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and has been cited 529 times so far. Of course, there is a lot more diversity in the individual winners, and a series of illuminating infographics tells some interesting tales.

Chemistry World | 8 min read


“Most would be considered quaint, preliminary and barely publishable today.”

Many of the papers leading to his 2016 Lasker prize (and today’s Nobel prize) with Gregg Semenza and Peter Ratcliffe would have been rejected because of today’s pressure to make overly broad claims, wrote William Kaelin in 2017. (Nature)

Today’s Nobel Prize-winner Peter Ratcliffe is not taking much time off to celebrate. He’s been snapped sitting at his desk working on a grant application (admittedly looking quite pleased) soon after learning he’d won. I’d be quite pleased to sit at my desk and read your feedback on this newsletter — please send it on over to

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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