Daily briefing: How inbreeding doomed the last island of woolly mammoths

Harmful mutations in the last woolly mammoths on Earth. Plus, how a super-precise version of CRISPR just got even better and the coronavirus disease has an official name.

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CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing complex, molecular structure.

Base editing offers greater control than the conventional CRISPR-Cas9 system (pictured).Credit: Carlos Clarivan/Science Photo Library

Super-precise CRISPR enhanced by enzymes

Chemical biologists have engineered enzymes to boost the accuracy of a super-precise version of the CRISPR genome-editing tool. The enzymes are less likely than the conventional CRISPR system to introduce unwanted errors when making single-letter changes to the genome, and could allow researchers to develop safer gene therapies. “The era of human genome editing is in its fragile beginnings now, and we all feel a responsibility to do everything possible to minimize the risk of adverse effects,” says David Liu, whose group developed the enzymes.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Nature Biotechnology paper

NASA soars in Trump budget proposal

NASA, artificial intelligence and quantum computing would all see dramatic boosts in funding for 2021 under a proposed budget from the administration of US President Donald Trump, released yesterday. The National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and Department of Energy are all slated for cuts under the budget proposal. Congress has repeatedly rebuffed such requests for cuts, and has instead chosen to increase science spending in recent years.

Nature | 6 min read

Inbreeding doomed last island of mammoths

Harmful mutations might have been the death knell for the last woolly mammoths on Earth. Scientists synthesized genes from a tooth that belonged to a mammoth from the last surviving population, which lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean 4,000 years ago. The genes contained mutations that can cause reduced male fertility, diabetes and a loss of the ability to smell the flowers that made up a large part of the mammoths’ diet.

Reuters | 3 min read

Reference: Genome Biology and Evolution paper

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

Disinfection personnel wearing protective clothing spreading high dense anti-virus spray in China

Authorities spray anti-virus disinfectant in Tianjin, China.Credit: Zhang Peng/LightRocket/Getty

WHO names novel coronavirus as COVID-19

• The World Health Organization (WHO) today officially named the coronavirus disease COVID-19. This will replace its provisional designation, 2019-nCoV. The name, which avoids finger-pointing at any particular place or people, simply indicates a coronavirus disease that arose in 2019. (STAT | 3 min read)

• The number of people in China who have been killed by COVID-19 is now more than 1,000, the nation’s health authorities report. Worldwide, more than 43,000 people have been infected. (Nature | continuously updated)

• Vaccines usually take years to develop (if they can be created at all). Technological innovations and a streamlined development process could cut that time to months for COVID-19. Even at that rate, it would be too late to fight the current outbreak, but a vaccine could be essential if the virus becomes established. (The Economist)

• The outbreak has put WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in “a near-impossible situation”: how to control a fast-moving epidemic without stepping on China’s toes. (Science | 13 min read)

• Are you a researcher who has been affected in some way by COVID-19? We’d like to hear from you to inform our news coverage. Please take our short survey.

Notable quotable

“If you can go from 1 percent of the population believing nutty conspiracies to 5 percent, that’s a win.”

A ‘fire hose’ of fake news about the COVID-19 coronavirus aims to cause chaos and disrupt trust, says misinformation researcher Carl Bergstrom. (The Washington Post)

Features & opinion

A universal law of turbulence

Mathematicians have uncovered a simple universal law to describe the type of turbulence you see when mixing paint or stirring milk into coffee. Researchers harnessed the handy statistical characteristics of randomness to show that these systems, although chaotic, mix with a predictable structure.

Quanta | 10 min read

Reference: arXiv preprint

A craftsman of new forms of matter

Chemist Jack Baldwin, who died last month aged 81, was best known for formulating a set of rules that predict how likely it is that atoms (mostly carbon) in a synthesis will link into rings, a structural feature of many biological molecules and drugs. Published in just three pages (with a one-sentence abstract) in 1976, Baldwin’s rules became fundamental to organic synthesis in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries, and to understanding biology from a chemical perspective.

Nature | 4 min read

News & views

Screen time and teenage mental health

There is some evidence that heavy users of social media have higher rates of depression and anxiety than do light users — and adolescents tend to be among those who use it most. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Nick Allen discuss how the technology affects adolescents’ mental health, and how digital devices might be used to improve well-being.

Nature | 8 min read

Image of the week

An aerial view of Mars recorded by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera

This Martian dust devil was captured in motion on the volcanic plains of Amazonis Planitia by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The core of the rotating column of dust is roughly 50 metres across, and the length of its dark shadow suggests that it’s about 650 metres tall.

Quote of the day

“The government didn’t give a reason — they just said this meteorite is ours now.”

Herder Zhuman Ramazan found a meteorite the size of a small car in a pasture in China’s Xinjiang region in 1986. Officials seized it in 2011, and he has been suing them since 2015. (Reason)

Happy International Day of Women and Girls in Science! Here’s an excellent collection of perspectives from six senior female scientists, including recently returned astronaut Jessica Meir.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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