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COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

Two Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) sitting in a tree

Rhesus macaques are one animal model for the new coronavirus.Credit: Neil Bowman/Flpa/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

Labs rush to study virus in transgenic animals

• Researchers want to study the coronavirus in transgenic animals to reveal how infections develop and to aid efforts to create drugs and vaccines. The first results are emerging: teams in China have reported initial findings after infecting monkeys and mice that express a human gene that the coronavirus uses to infect cells. Some animal models are in short supply: a mouse-breeding laboratory says it has been overwhelmed with requests for a transgenic mouse that was developed in response to the 2002–03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). (Nature | 6 min read)

• Near-real-time analysis of viral genomes gives insight into how COVID-19 is hopping between countries and spreading in communities — but scientists are urging caution in how results are interpreted. Gene sequences represent only a tiny fraction of cases, and the mutations that differentiate strains are still very minor. “As the outbreak unfolds, we expect to see more and more diversity and more clearly distinct lineages,” says computational biologist Richard Neher. “And then it will become easier and easier to actually put things together.” (Science | 8 min read)

• Panic-buying of protective N95 respirators is putting at risk the very research that aims to stop deadly pathogens. To adapt, some high-level biosafety labs are switching to reusable air-purifying hoods — but these are far more expensive. “We can be creative,” says infectious-disease researcher Joan Nichols. “But at the end of the day, we cannot do this work unless we’re protected properly.” (Undark | 8 min read)

Read the latest coronavirus news, continuously updated on Nature.

Notable quotable

“I’m in the deeply ironic position at the moment of strongly discouraging social connection, despite the fact that it’s the central focus of my book — and my life’s work.”

Epidemiologist Nicholas Christakis, who writes about how human social skills build kind and successful societies, supports the argument that the government of the United States should be reacting more strongly to the coronavirus outbreak. (The New York Times)


Old plastic smells delicious to sea turtles

Weathered, algae-encrusted plastic has a food-like odour that is attractive to sea turtles. Researchers wafted the scent over the tank of 15 captive-reared loggerhead sea turtles. The turtles responded with the same intensity as they did to the smell of fish and shrimp. “This 'olfactory trap' might help explain why sea turtles ingest and become entangled in plastic so frequently,” says biologist Joseph Pfaller.

BBC | 4 min read

Reference: Current Biology paper

Research highlights: 1-minute reads

Beef is is draining US rivers

Almost one-third of the water used in the western United States goes to crops that feed cattle. The irrigation of alfalfa, hay, maize (corn), sorghum and other crops eaten by cattle is the largest consumer of water in the United States — and the leading cause of abnormally low river flows. Leaving land fallow for limited periods would help, say researchers.

Ageing microscopes get a new lease of life

Transmission electron microscopes (TEMs) can make films of events lasting just trillionths of a second, thanks to a simple retrofit. An upgrade breaks the steady stream of electrons emitted by the TEM into pulses, overcoming the limitation that the sample must stay still.

Impact of mixing low-calorie sweeteners with carbs

Consuming low-calorie sweeteners at the same time as carbohydrates seems to affect the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. After a regimen combining carbohydrates and the low-calorie sweetener sucralose, healthy people showed changes in their insulin sensitivity and their brain responses to sweet flavours.

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

Features & opinion

Busy lives of academics have hidden costs

A particularly exhausting week in which family life and his own health fell by the wayside in favour of work deadlines prompted neuroscientist Hilal Lashuel to ponder the toll of overwork in academia. University leaders at all levels should pause and think about the costs of continuing business as usual, he argues.

Nature | 7 min read

Self-driving boat maps what lies beneath

The cold, fresh water of Lake Huron preserves in eerily pristine condition many of the ships that fell victim to its ‘Shipwreck Alley’. An autonomous boat called BEN is aiming to map the mysteries that lie beneath the waves, and prove its worth in the quest to fill in the huge holes in our knowledge of the ocean floor.

The Verge | 13 min read

Pizza hangs in the quantum-computing balance

On 1 March 2030, a physicist will be one pizza (and one beer) richer. Physicists Jonathan Dowling and John Preskill have set up a playful bet about whether someone will invent a topological quantum computer. The theory is that such a computer will function through the merry dance of clusters of electrons, known as non-Abelian anyons, swapping locations inside a material. “I would be really happy if I lost,” says Dowling. “That would mean somebody made a topological quantum computer.”

Wired | 9 min read

Image of the week

View of the night sky above the construction site of ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope

ESO/M. Zamani

The night sky above the planned Extremely Large Telescope (pictured) will be only “moderately affected” by the numerous satellites being launched as part of communication ‘megaconstallations’. A European Southern Observatory study suggests strategies to mitigate the problem, such as closing the telescope shutter at the precise moment when a satellite crosses the field of view. The study assumes 26,000 constellation satellites in total will be orbiting the Earth, but this number could be higher. (ESO press release)

Read more: SpaceX launch highlights threat to astronomy from ‘megaconstellations’

Reference: Astronomy and Astrophysics paper (ESO/M. Zamani)

Quote of the day