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Daily briefing: US court quashes children’s climate lawsuit

Young people must pursue climate fight with politicians, not through the courts, says ruling. Plus, a call to create contagious climate optimism and US research struggles for clarity over embryo-like structures.

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A microscopic photo of a human embryo with four cells

Research with human embryos is fraught, so some researchers are creating synthetic embryos from stem cells.Credit: Juan Gartner/Science Photo Library/Getty

US research struggles for clarity over embryo-like structures

US scientists say they are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain federal funding for research that uses synthetic embryos. These embryo-like structures, made from human stem cells, allow researchers to investigate the earliest stages of human development while sidestepping the ethical minefield of working with real human embryos. Researchers say that they need clearer guidance on how a 1996 ban on federal funding for human-embryo research, among other laws and guidelines, applies to their work on embryo-like structures.

Nature | 6 min read

US court denies children’s climate lawsuit

On Friday, a US court “reluctantly” quashed a climate lawsuit brought by 21 young people against the US government. The judge determined that “the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government” — not the courts. The youths can still appeal to the country’s Supreme Court.

Science | 4 min read

Post-Brexit policy will remake farming

Researchers are lauding radical changes to agriculture funding in England proposed by the UK government. The country’s imminent departure from the European Union will free policymakers to shift subsidies from their current focus on productivity to one on “public goods”, such as sequestering carbon and restoring habitats. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which control their own agricultural policies within the United Kingdom, are expected to follow suit — and other countries are watching keenly for the outcomes.

Science | 6 min read

Research highlights: 1-minute reads

Wolf puppies play fetch

Hand-reared wolf puppies can play a game of fetch with a human — a behaviour thought to be associated with domestication. Three out of thirteen wild canines tested were happy to chase after a tennis ball and bring it back to an encouraging stranger.

Carbon dating reveals fake whisky

Carbon-14 dating has revealed that some expensive ‘antique’ Scotch is decades younger than claimed. Researchers were able to set a benchmark using samples of whisky with known production dates. They then found multiple imposters — including a drink made between 2007 and 2014 that its label claimed was from 1863.

Hand-crafted wetland sucks up more carbon

A restored and carefully managed wetland on the Chinese coast is a much larger carbon sink than an unrestored marsh nearby. Restoration and strict controls helped a saltwater marsh take up more carbon dioxide and emit much less methane, with the net effect of soaking up 13 times more carbon than its untouched neighbour.

Cat-poo parasite can hide in your organs

The toxoplasmosis parasite can hide in a person’s organs after infection and re-emerge years later. Infected cat poo and undercooked food can both spread Toxoplasma gondii. After infection, the gene BFD1 helps parasites convert into dormant forms that can later re-activate and cause symptoms.

Get more of Nature’s research highlights: short picks from the scientific literature.

Features & opinion

No climate victory without optimism

Of the many hurdles between humanity and a low-carbon future, “the greatest is mindset”, says Christiana Figueres. As executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, Figueres was at the sharp end of negotiations for the Paris agreement to slash global carbon emissions. “To get to what we achieved in Paris, we moved away from confrontational blaming-and-shaming to appreciating shared opportunities,” she says. “There could be no victory without optimism.”

Nature | 6 min read

Leveraging the power of peer pressure

A book by economist Robert Frank offers extensive evidence from studies across a number of disciplines on how peer pressure shapes the dynamics of smoking, drinking, obesity, consumerism and many other important social issues. There are gaps in the book’s overview, writes reviewer Thomas Dietz, but it’s a thought-provoking read at a time when crises such as climate change are looming.

Nature | 5 min read

App matches anyone’s face to photos on the web

A secretive US company threatens to make public privacy obsolete using a facial-recognition algorithm derived from academic papers. The tool offers to match a photo of any person with its database of billions of images scraped from the Internet — without consent and often in violation of the terms of websites such as Facebook. The company, Clearview AI, sells its tool to law-enforcement agencies, but how secure the underlying technology is, and whether it is legal, is unknown outside the company. Clearview AI investor David Scalzo thinks “there’s never going to be privacy” and accepts that technology “might lead to a dystopian future or something”.

The New York Times | 15 min read

Quote of the day

“To all the people gathering in Davos, and all those watching from the outside, I urge you to move firmly into a state of stubborn optimism.”

Christiana Figueres, who spearheaded the the 2015 Paris climate agreement, has a message for the politicians, billionaires and celebrities gathering this week for their yearly networking meeting in Davos, Switzerland. (Nature)

If, like me, you’ve had your eyes glued to the skies in hopes of catching Betelgeuse going supernova, enjoy this comparison of the variable star’s brightness in 2019 compared to 2020 from astronomer Will Gater.

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