Daily briefing: More than 500 species of vertebrates are on the brink of extinction

“We’re eroding the capabilities of the planet to maintain human life and life in general.” Plus: the huge cohort studies pivoting to COVID-19, and the long-term health effects of being born extremely early.

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German Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek watches a woman giving blood

The Rhineland cohort study in Bonn, Germany, has collected blood samples from 5,000 people so far to test for antibodies.Credit: Martin Meissner/AFP/Getty

Huge cohort studies pivot to COVID-19

Cohort studies set up before the coronavirus crisis are switching tracks to look at the pandemic’s long-term effects. Cohort studies collect genetic and lifestyle data on thousands of people in an effort to untangle the complex web of factors that lead to some disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. But scientists are now repurposing those massive data sets to understand the epidemiology of the COVID-19, its impact on physical and mental health and its socioeconomic consequences. “We are all different and these larger pre-existing cohorts will be very valuable in helping us understand which of our biological or lifestyle factors put us at risk,” says epidemiologist Ralf Reintjes.

Nature | 6 min read

More than 500 vertebrates ‘on the brink’

The rate of loss of biodiversity is faster than previously estimated, with 515 species of vertebrates now counting fewer than 1,000 members. Some 543 vertebrate species have already been lost in the past century, a rate 100 times faster than what occurs naturally. “In other words, every year over the last century we lost the same number of species typically lost in 100 years,” says ecologist Gerardo Ceballos. Scientists have warned that climate change and other major disruptions — such as habitat loss and deforestation — could be causing Earth’s first mass extinction since the one in which non-avian dinosaurs disappeared 66 million years ago.

New York Times | 5 min read

Source: PNAS paper

Gene detectives investigate Dead Sea Scrolls

DNA fingerprinting is helping researchers to understand the patchwork of archaeological fragments known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Through genetic analysis, researchers have been able to reconstruct the origin of some of the ancient parchments. In particular, they realized that two pieces once considered part of the same manuscript were in fact made from different animal hides — one from sheep and the other from cow. “There are many scrolls fragments that we don’t know how to connect, and if we connect wrong pieces together it can change dramatically the interpretation,” says geneticist Oded Rechavi.

National Geographic | 6 min read

Source: Cell paper

China delayed release of coronavirus data

China kept the World Health Organization (WHO) in the dark during the crucial early period of the coronavirus outbreak, according to an investigation by The Associated Press. The lack of transparency, and the WHO’s frustration, are detailed in newly revealed documents. The upshot was a delay of a week or more in releasing important information, such as the virus’s genome sequence and epidemiological data necessary to understand its spread. The information reveals that the WHO was an organization “urgently trying to solicit more data despite limited authority”, reports The Associated Press.

Associated Press | 18 min read

Science after the COVID-19 pandemic

Cartoon showing a stack of papers with a keyhole at the centre vs a stack of papers with a person entering the centre one

Illustration by The Project Twins

Is this scientific publishing’s new normal?

The COVID-19 crisis has underlined just how fast and open science publishing can be. Preprint servers are overflowing with preliminary results, peer review is proceeding in record time and many journals have made relevant research free to read. The question is whether these changes are here to stay.

Nature | 6 min read

The risk to China’s race to the top of science

When COVID-19 hit, China was close to surpassing the United States as the leading science funder, two years after it took top place as the biggest producer of scientific articles. The pandemic could slow that momentum by shrinking funding for scientific research in China, cooling international cooperation and squeezing the pipeline of Chinese students to other countries. But an influx of money from the private sector — and the irrepressible desire for scientific collaboration — could prevent lasting harm to Chinese science.

Nature | 5 min read

Read more in our series on science after the pandemic:

Universities will never be the same (9 min read)

How scientific conferences will survive (5 min read)

The pandemic will make or break research funding (5 min read)

Features & opinion

Scientists are watching out for the health of adults born extremely premature, such as these people who took part in a photography project.Credit: Red Méthot

Survival of the littlest

Biomedical scientist Camille Girard-Bock beat the odds: born at a gestational age of just 26 weeks, she now contributes to a study examining the consequences of being born extremely premature. Babies born before 28 weeks are surviving into adulthood at higher rates than ever, and research is revealing that they can face life-long health issues. “Preterm birth should be thought of as a chronic condition that requires long-term follow-up,” says physician and epidemiologist Casey Crump. “Doctors are not used to seeing them, but they increasingly will.”

Nature | 12 min read

Pressing pause on the tenure clock

In response to the COVID–19 pandemic, some academic institutions are offering extensions to the contracts of tenure-track faculty. The probationary period for early-career staff typically lasts seven years in the United States. Researchers have broadly welcomed the option. But 2013 research showed that stopping the clock — after having a baby, for example — can affect salary later, compared with that of colleagues who didn’t take a break. And academic jobs are more tenuous than ever because of pressures on university finances. Overall, many researchers hope that the situation helps change the toxic academic work culture permanently. “We need a culture shift that recognizes tenure is designed to protect academic freedom and not to be a caste system within the university, ” says Hans-Joerg Tiede of the American Association of University Professors.

Chemical & Engineering News | 10 min read

Read more: Early analyses suggest that the lockdowns have had a disproportionate impact on the productivity of female scientists. (Nature | 6 min read)

Quote of the day

Let’s get birding! In support of #BlackBirdersWeek, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is offering two of its online bird-identification courses for free. You must snag the courses this week, but they will never expire.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Davide Castelvecchi and David Cyranoski

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