Daily briefing: Last of their kind, the tuatara genome reveals why this reptile is so remarkable

The first tuatara genome sheds light on our reptile ancestors and epidemiologists predict the future of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Figure 1 Tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus, New Zealand.

Figure 1 | A tuatara in New Zealand. Gemmell et al.4 have generated a high-quality genome sequence for the tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus).Credit: Pete Oxford/NPL

The genome of a remarkable reptile

The tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) is the last living member of the reptilian order Rhynchocephalia, which once roamed across the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. The first genetic sequence of this iconic New Zealand animal reveals its crucial link to the now-extinct stem reptiles from which dinosaurs, modern reptiles, birds and mammals evolved. It also illuminates the tuatara’s unique biology, including its unusual longevity and combination of bird- and reptile-like features. The study sets a new standard for co-production: the work is a collaboration between genomicists and Ngātiwai, the Maori iwi (people) who have guardianship over the tuatara populations that were used. Geneticist Rebecca Johnson explores the findings in a Nature News & Views article.

Nature News & Views | 7 min read

Get up to speed quickly with first author Neil Gemmell’s Twitter thread about the paper.

Reference: Nature paper

NSF changes raise alarm for basic science

Some scientists are worried that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has updated the guidance for its prestigious graduate-student fellowships to emphasize research in applied computational science. The NSF is the major US agency tasked with funding basic research. Critics fear that the focus on artificial intelligence, computationally intensive research and quantum information science will decrease money for fundamental science, which can struggle to attract funding from government and industry sources.

Nature | 6 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Illustration of a line of people walking through a jungle that is filled with Sars-CoV-2 virus.

Illustration by Ana Kova

Possible futures for the pandemic

Around the world, epidemiologists are constructing short- and long-term projections to prepare for, and potentially mitigate, the spread and impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Although their forecasts and timelines vary, modellers agree on two things: COVID-19 is here to stay, and the future depends on a lot of unknowns, including whether people develop lasting immunity to the virus, whether seasonality affects its spread and — perhaps most importantly — the choices made by governments and individuals. In some places, such as in the United States and Brazil, rapid rises in cases have modellers worried. Elsewhere, where lockdowns are easing, early evidence suggests that the ‘new normal’ of hand-washing and mask wearing is helping to stem second waves.

Nature | 11 min read

Graphic showing how official figures for COVID-19 infections and deaths have been significantly understated in 86 countries.

Source: Data from ref. 1, updated with authors’ estimates until 10 July 2020

Notable quotable

“I’ve been in quarantine for 43 days and I want to come out… But no one in this whole universe is telling me if I’m contagious or not.”

University student Natalie Forouzad suffered ongoing symptoms and repeatedly tested positive for COVID-19. Her experience raises questions about the very rare cases in which the virus seems to linger for longer. (Elemental | 15 min read)

Features & opinion

How each person can fight climate change

Six scientists and policy analysts share ways that individuals can help to save the world. They discuss the need to make emotionally restorative personal choices and emphasize the importance, where it is feasible, of pushing leaders to prioritize green policies. “Reducing your carbon footprint via climate-friendlier lifestyle choices is certainly important,” says climatologist Michael Man. “But the most important thing you can do is demand policy action and systematic change.”

The Guardian | 6 min read

Sub-Saharan Africa needs data to conquer hunger

Once-in-a-generation swarms of locusts are attacking crops in sub-Saharan Africa, and COVID-19 is threatening long-term disruption to food-supply chains. The United Nations has warned of famine on a scale that has not been seen in 50 years. Researchers must help to build agile, inclusive data collection and analysis to inform agricultural policy and avert disaster, argue global-development researcher Jaron Porciello and five colleagues.

Nature | 10 min read

Quote of the day

“It came alive… it doesn’t sound like a machine, it sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere.”

NASA astronaut Bob Behnken describes what it was like to descend to Earth in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Sunday. (Reuters | 3 min read)

Today I’ve been enjoying EcoBuilder, a smartphone game that lets me design my own ecosystems, populated by adorable blobs, that are modelled using real ecology equations. Designed at Imperial College London, researchers say players’ solutions might help solve real-world ecological puzzles that are reflected in the game. I’ve already learnt from experience why grey squirrels are out-eating red squirrels in the United Kingdom — but I won’t spoil the level by telling.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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