Daily briefing: Balls of moss move in herds across glaciers and scientists don’t know why

The mysterious movement of moss tribbles, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences on countering anti-science rhetoric and the WHO has suspended its hydroxychloroquine trial over safety concerns.

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Many small balls of moss rest atop a field of ice.

Glacier mice in Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet glacier in Iceland, in 2005.Ruth Mottram

Balls of moss move like a flock

Squishy pillows of moss appear to slowly move across glaciers in a coordinated fashion, researchers have found. In a long-term study in Alaska, researchers tagged the rolling ‘glacier mice’ to monitor their motion. The herd seems to move in unison, at a speed of about 2.5 centimetres per day. Their motion didn’t align with the prevailing winds, and they weren’t rolling down a slope — so what propels them is still a mystery. “It's very hard not to think of tribbles from Star Trek,” says climate scientist Ruth Mottram. The team hopes to track glacier mice that were tagged a decade ago to see how they have moved over a longer period.

NPR | 6 min read

Source: Polar Biology paper

Research job losses hit women hardest

Female university staff in Australia have lost more jobs, paid hours and career opportunities than their male colleagues have since the pandemic hit. And there could be worse to come, because women are 50% more likely to hold at-risk casual and short-term contract positions — which are often the first to go. A report by a forum that represents the country’s scientists found that funding cuts could see gender-equity gains lost as institutions pull back on permanent contracts.

Nature Index | 5 min read

Read more: Are women publishing less during the pandemic? Here’s what the data say (Nature, 6 min read)

Reference: Rapid Research Information Forum report

Molecular movie captures electron motion

Physicists have made a molecular-scale movie that shows how electrons rearrange their positions in a light-driven chemical reaction long before the atoms themselves have begun to move. To initiate the reaction, the team shot light pulses at a molecule of 1,3-cyclohexadiene. These were followed by powerful ultra-short pulses of X-rays, which blew the molecule apart. By looking at the subatomic shrapnel, the scientists could reconstruct its shape at the time it exploded.

Physics World | 6 min read

Source: Nature Communications paper

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

Coloured transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus particles

SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus particles imaged using an electron microscope.Credit: NIAID/National Institutes of Health/Science Photo Library

WHO suspends hydroxychloroquine trial

The World Health Organization (WHO) has paused testing of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 until safety risks can be analysed. A study of nearly 100,000 people linked the antimalarial drug to an elevated risk of death and abnormal heart rhythms when used as a coronavirus therapy. The drug is considered generally safe for treatment of autoimmune diseases and malaria. The other arms of the WHO’s global coronavirus mega-trial, SOLIDARITY, will continue to test three other treatments: remdesivir and two combinations of ritonavir, lopinavir and interferon beta-1a.BBC | 3 min read

Reference: The Lancet paper

‘Medications should be prescribed by doctors’

With the world’s third-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, Brazil is in turmoil: the country has seen two health ministers depart within the past two months, and its leadership is promoting unproven treatments. Physicist Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, spoke to Nature about how organizations such as his are working hard to counter anti-science rhetoric. “Medications should be prescribed by medical doctors, not by the president of Brazil,” says Davidovich.

Nature | 5 min read

Africa leverages global scientific connections

Scientific networks and personal connections are helping researchers in African countries to access precious laboratory supplies for studying the coronavirus. “We hope that this will create lasting impressions on the politicians, so that after the pandemic is over they will remember to invest sustainably in science,” says infectious-disease scientist Gordon Awandare.Nature | 5 min read

Coronapod: Vaccine-trial results

Get the expert view from Nature’s news team in our weekly audio overview of the state of coronavirus science. This week, we dig into the hope and caution inspired by the latest vaccine trials and consider US President Donald Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organization.

Nature Coronapod | 34 min listen

Features & opinion

The Polarstern research vessel photographed in darkness while trapped in ice over the Arctic winter

The Polarstern on 27 December 2019, nearly three months after it was frozen into Arctic pack ice.Credit: Lukas Piotrowski

Ice-locked expedition returns crucial data

Last October, Germany’s biggest research vessel, Polarstern, got frozen in the Arctic ice — on purpose. The ambitious one-year mission would give a rotating crew of some 300 scientists from 17 countries an unprecedented view of the polar climate and its fragile ecosystems. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with travel to and from the ship, forcing it to break out of the ice for an unforeseen three-week break to transfer scientists. But the rewards have been rich — researchers are bringing back daring tales, troves of data and stunning photographs.

Nature | 10 min read

Nature Careers

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips, Smriti Mallapaty and Davide Castelvecchi

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