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Daily briefing: Huge artificial plateau is the oldest Mayan monument ever found

The oldest (and largest) Mayan monument ever found, what it would take to prove how the coronavirus passed from bats to people and new evidence for how lack of sleep kills.

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Two scientists in protective clothing work at a lab bench.

Research into pathogens is key to tackling the mystery of the coronavirus’s originsCredit: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty

The mystery at the heart of the pandemic

The SARS-CoV-2 virus almost certainly originated in bats, then probably passed to an intermediate animal, which spread it to people. But it’s been very difficult to identify that animal — or to completely rule out the unsubstantiated idea that the virus escaped from a laboratory. Pinpointing the source of SARS-CoV-2 would require extensive sampling of coronaviruses in wildlife and livestock, and could take years.

Nature | 9 min read

Oldest Mayan monument ever found

A huge artificial plateau that is 1.4 kilometres long and 10–15 metres high has been discovered in Mexico. Archaeologists spotted the monumental construction from the air using lidar, a remote-sensing method that maps the ground using lasers. Dubbed Aguada Fénix, the extensive structure was built between 1000 and 800 BC, and precedes the peak of the Maya empire by more than a millennium.

National Geographic | 7 min read

Go deeper with the Nature News & Views article.Reference: Nature paper

Figure 1

Figure 1 | An early Maya site. a, Inomata et al.2 report the discovery of a site in Mexico at Aguada Fénix that is associated with the ancient Maya. Using surface-mapping technology called lidar, followed by excavations, the authors reveal a huge platform built from clay and earth that dates to 1000–800 bc. It contains a type of structure called an E Group (comprising a western mound and eastern platform) that is associated with astronomical observations. Inomata and colleagues’ finding reveals surprisingly early large-scale landscape alterations pre-dating the emergence of Maya royal courts and providing insight into how Maya societies developed. Scale bar, 500 metres. b, In a typical E-Group arrangement, a western mound or pyramid provides a viewing site that aids the observation of sunrise on the horizon at the summer and winter solstices. These events are viewed by looking towards the corners of an elongated platform to the east.

Two high profile COVID-19 papers retracted

The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) have retracted two separate studies that relied on de-identified electronic health records from a company called Surgisphere. The Lancet study raised safety concerns about the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, which prompted some regulators to temporarily pause trials of the drug. The NEJM study found no evidence that blood-pressure medications were harmful for people with COVID-19 and underlying cardiovascular disease. The authors requested that the papers be retracted after questions were raised about the underlying data, and Surgisphere refused to provide them for legal and confidentiality reasons.

A third study using Surgisphere data, uploaded to and then removed from social-sciences preprint server SSRN, has contributed to enthusiasm for the antiparasitic drug ivermectin in South America. “Who retracts this ivermectin ghost in Latin America?” asks global-health researcher Carlos Chaccour. “There’s no high-profile journal saying this was wrong.”

Nature | 7 min read

Reference: retracted Lancet paper & retracted New England Journal of Medicine paper

Features & opinion

How lack of sleep kills

When fruit flies endure sleeplessness, cells in their guts accumulate toxic molecules that break down their DNA. Similar toxins were spotted in sleep-deprived mice. And when the sleepless flies were given antioxidants that prevent such build-up, they reached a normal fly life span. “‘They’re alive!’ And not only were they alive, they looked good,” says developmental neuroscientist Dragana Rogulja. The results suggest that although most sleep studies focus on the brain, lack of sleep kills by damaging other organs.

Quanta | 14 min read

Reference: Cell paper

Podcast: Lab-made skin grows its own hair

Lab-grown skin has, up until now, had something missing: hair. Stem-cell researcher Karl Koehler tells the Nature Podcast how he and his colleagues made the leap — which could someday lead to skin grafts that include many more of the cells, glands, nerves and other components found in normal skin. “We are starting from pluripotent stem cells — these are cells that can become any cell in the body,” Koehler says. “We’re essentially recreating the entire developmental process of the skin.”

Nature Podcast | 24 min listen

Go deeper in the Nature News & Views article.

Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

Reference: Nature paper

Science after the COVID-19 pandemic

Cartoon of a person holding a flask containing a chemical structure in one hand, the other a magnifying glass looking at a virus

Illustration by The Project Twins

Some scientists will never go back

Around the world, thousands of scientists have changed their focus to researching COVID-19, or are using their equipment to run diagnostic tests. If enough researchers embrace this change, it could prompt a vast shift in the scientific landscape.Nature | 6 min readRead 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)

The risk to China’s race to the top of science (5 min read)

Is this scientific publishing’s new normal? (6 min read)

Outbreak could alter the drug development landscape (6 min read)

Scientists’ worlds will shrink (6 min read)

SWITCHING SUBJECTS: infographic showing the fields of authors of COVID-related papers in arXiv compared to their usual fields

Source: arXiv papers submitted through May 25 2020. ‘COVID-related’ refers to papers with ‘COVID’ or ‘SARS-CoV-2’ in abstract or title

Books & culture

Iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland

Studying climate change in regions such as Greenland can be emotionally devastating.Credit: Florian Ledoux

New ways of knowing in a time of overload

Information overload can make you feel numb or cause anxiety, says Heather Houser, co-director of a climate-resilience project in the United States and author of a new book, Infowhelm. For scientists, the emotional impact of studying topics such as ecological collapse can be devastating — yet they must maintain professional detachment. “I think the arts are a great way to allow all these other aspects of understanding and processing, as a person, to come into the narrative,” says Houser.

Nature | 4 min read

Migration can be the solution

The shifting climate means that we must allow — and assist — people, plants and animals who are forced to relocate to survive, argues a book by journalist Sonia Shah. Shah draws on affecting anecdotes and reflects on animal movements — both natural and human-caused — to explore our attitudes in advance of the vast human migration that will be caused by climate change. “The altered communities that result won’t just be different, they’ll often be better adapted to thrive in our warming world,” writes reviewer Emma Marris.

Nature | 5 min read

Where I work

Christian Happi photographed at his lab.

Christian Happi is a molecular biologist at the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University in Ede, Nigeria.Credit: ACEGID

Working staggered shifts to respect social distancing, Christian Happi and his team perform PCR on human-tissue samples to detect infectious pathogens. The molecular biologist has deployed his lab in Ede, Nigeria, against the current pandemic. “People might have thought that this work was impossible in Africa,” he says, “but we are demonstrating that the continent’s scientists can generate crucial data in the global fight against COVID-19.” (Nature | 3 min read)

Quote of the day

“The best tool to blow something up is a university.”

Universities train scientists and engineers to do powerful things, such as when Rio Tinto engineers recently blasted a sacred site sacred to Indigenous Australians last monthAboriginal site in Australia. But students are not trained in the ethical and moral reasoning needed to use their powers for good, argues Gomeroi mathematician and behavioural ecologist Jared Field. (The Guardian | 7 min read)

Today, our aquatic explorer Leif Penguinson is drying off among the spiny treasures of the Huntington Library Desert Garden in California. Can you spot the penguin?

The answer will be in Monday’s e-mail, all thanks to Briefing photo editor and penguin wrangler Tom Houghton.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips, Smriti Mallapaty, David Cyranoski and Davide Castelvecchi

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