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Earlier this month, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema was appointed executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. She is the first woman from Africa to lead the intergovernmental body, and will oversee the creation of a global biodiversity agreement for the next decade. Mrema spoke to Nature about how the coronavirus pandemic has influenced negotiations, and the challenges ahead. “One could say that I have been appointed at a bad time for biodiversity, considering that the whole world is just emerging from, or still in, lockdown,” she says. “But at the same time, I see it as a major opportunity, as biodiversity is being discussed more than ever before.”
Scientists carrying out routine monitoring of influenza strains in China have found that pigs are widely infected with a virus with the potential to trigger a pandemic. The strain, called G4, is a genetic blend of three lineages. These include the H1N1 virus that caused the 2009 pandemic, suggesting that it might be able to adapt for human-to-human transmission. Antibody tests showed that more than 4% of humans surveyed had been exposed to G4. In its current form, the virus is not considered dangerous, but scientists warn that, given the unpredictability of influenza viruses, a vaccine should be developed. “We need to be vigilant about other infectious disease threats even as COVID is going on because viruses have no interest in whether we’re already having another pandemic,” says evolutionary biologist Martha Nelson.
Nineteenth-century biologist Louis Pasteur speculated that life’s preference for using certain organic molecules but not their mirror-image counterparts is “one of the links between life on Earth and the cosmos”. Now, two astrophysicists have a new interpretation of that connection. They say that the never-ending bombardment of Earth by cosmic rays could have led to DNA that is unerringly right-handed and amino acids that are nearly always left-handed. Cosmic rays that hit the upper atmosphere produce new particles, some of which are endowed with a preferred handedness caused by the weak nuclear force, the only fundamental force known to distinguish left from right. Over eons, that asymmetry could have trickled down to organic matter.
Features & opinion
Organizing a virtual conference changed how sustainability researchers Christina Bidmon, Cristyn Meath and René Bohnsack think about academic exchange. “When COVID-19 hit, we optimistically thought, ‘We will take our conference virtual’,” they write. “In the process, we’ve found that, instead of thinking of online conferences as replacements-by-necessity for physical conferences that should resemble the ‘real thing’, we should try to accept them as an entirely different model of academic exchange.” They share their tips for using a conference platform, helping participants mingle and maintaining the fun factor.
Christopher Monroe and his team spent three years setting up their quantum computer to be operated remotely. When the COVID–19 pandemic struck, those efforts paid off in an unexpected way: quantum computers work best without humans walking around the lab and producing vibrations or temperature fluctuations. Their machine “has kept running — all day, every day”, Monroe writes. “And the data have been excellent because the campus has been a ghost town.” The bigger lesson is that a remote mode of operation could hasten the development of these potentially revolutionary machines, Monroe says.
Infographic of the week
From electric vehicles to smart grids, the path to a greener future is paved with lithium-ion batteries — lots of them. That means we need better ways to keep them cool. But the task has been hindered by a lack of a standard way to judge their thermal performance. Five engineers propose the cell cooling coefficient, a measure for the rate of heat removal from battery packs that gives manufacturers a simple way to compare products. (Nature | 8 min read)
Sure, I’ve baked some lockdown bread. I’ve even made jam. But conservation biologist William Sutherland cooked an entire Babylonian meal from a recipe chiselled on a tablet in 1750 BC — the oldest known cookbook in the world.
Share your favourite old family recipe — or any other feedback on this newsletter — with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With contributions by David Cyranoski and Davide Castelvecchi