Daily briefing: Mysterious mismatch between coronavirus infections and serious disease in Africa

Antibody surveys from countries across Africa have shown that a large proportion of people has been infected with COVID-19 — but the continent has so far been spared the worst ravages of the disease. Plus: Ceres has an ocean and clean energy would pay for itself in good health.

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Two jelly-like creatures with big eyes, one transparent, the other with small dark spots all over it.

A longfin inshore squid hatchling treated with CRISPR gene editing lacks the spots of its untreated companion.K. Crawford et al./Curr. Biol.

First gene-edited squid is clear as glass

Marine biologists have used the DNA-editing tool CRISPR to genetically alter a squid for the first time. The achievement is a technical feat because cephalopod embryos have a protective outer layer that makes them tricky to work with. The team developed a pair of microscissors that cut a small hole big enough to accomodate a specially made needle. Once the needle was inside, the scientists used CRISPR to snip out a gene linked to the squid’s skin, making the animal translucent. Cephalopods have large brains, complex behaviours and neurons that directly control the changing patterns on their skin, making them a promising model organism for studying brain evolution and neural function.

OneZone | 6 min read

Reference: Current Biology paper

Universities scrub names of racist leaders

In July, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York removed DNA scientist James Watson’s name from its biological-sciences graduate programme, citing his past racist comments. It’s just one example of institutions worldwide that are changing or reviewing the names of campus buildings, programmes and memorials that honour scientists and figures who had discriminatory beliefs. Many of these announcements followed years-long campaigns by students and faculty members who risked their careers to remake their institutions from within. Those who fought for the changes say that renaming buildings is only the first step towards improving diversity and inclusion in academia; they are advocating sustained efforts to transform university culture.

Nature | 7 min read

Swimming on Ceres

The dwarf planet Ceres seemingly has a salty ocean of water beneath its surface. The ocean is the source of mysterious bright areas spotted on the distant world’s surface. Images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which dipped to less than 35 kilometers above Ceres’s surface on its 2018 mission, reveal the areas are deposits of mostly sodium carbonate. These were formed as briny water percolated up to the surface and then evaporated. “Ceres is now an ocean world,” writes planetary scientist Julie Castillo-Rogez in the Nature Astronomy News & Views article accompanying the research.

MIT Technology Review | 4 min read

Reference: Nature Astronomy paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Two children run past a painted mural warning about COVID-19 in Nairobi.

Children run past a mural warning about COVID-19 in Nairobi. Kenya has reported relatively few cases so far.Brian Inganga/AP/Shutterstock

Africa’s COVID-19 mystery

Antibody surveys across Africa have shown that a large proportion of people has been infected with COVID-19 — but the continent has so far been spared the worst ravages of the disease. For example, perhaps 1 in 20 adults in Kenya, or 1.6 million people, have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, according to one preprint study that looked at blood donors in the country. Yet Kenya’s official death toll is under 500, it has not seen an overall rise in mortality and its hospitals have not reported large numbers of people with symptoms. Scientists are exploring whether the result could be due to the continent’s youthful populations, genetic factors or some kind of protection gleaned from exposure to other diseases.

Science | 6 min read

Reference: medRxiv preprint

How to stop a resurgence of other diseases

COVID-19 has turned the clock back years, if not decades, in the fight against infectious diseases, argues a Nature editorial. It recommends four things governments and funders can do to avert a catastrophe. Hospitals and health authorities in affected cities and regions must recognize that AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis (TB) are surging again. Researchers must continue to refine their models using more real-world data. There needs to be a step change in funding for prevention, treatment and research. And public-information campaigns must alert people of the rising threat posed by infectious diseases.

Nature | 6 min read

Notable quotable

“Even for the flu, which we’ve studied for decades, we still don’t know how much is transmitted by aerosols or by touching contaminated objects.”

Civil and environmental engineer Linsey Marr, who co-authored an influential commentary urging authorities to acknowledge the potential for airborne transmission of COVID-19, emphasizes that there are many unanswered questions. (National Geographic | 9 min read)

Features & opinion

Air quality is reason enough to axe fossil fuels

The toxic effects of air pollution are so bad that moving from fossil fuels to clean energy would pay for itself in health-care savings and productivity gains — even if climate change didn’t exist. A model presented to the US government by earth scientist Drew Shindell predicts that over 20 years, aggressive decarbonization could save around 1.4 million lives in the United States alone that would otherwise be lost to air pollution. The shocking numbers arise from huge data sets being generated in the United States, China and other countries. “The air-quality scientific community has hypothesized this for at least a decade, but research advances have let us quantify and confirm this notion, over and over,” says air-quality researcher Rebecca Saari. “The air quality ‘co-benefits’ are generally so valuable that they exceed the cost of climate action, often many times over.”

Vox | 9 min read

Reference: House Committee on Oversight and Reform testimony

‘We’re losing the glue that holds the landscape together’

In Canada, land that scientists once thought would stay frozen forever is melting. Visceral descriptions of islands disgorging semi-frozen mud illustrate the catastrophic changes happening in the permafrost that underlies nearly half of Canada. As a result, people are losing their homes, infrastructure is failing and wildlife is struggling to adapt. “When permafrost thaws, we’re losing the glue that holds the landscape together,” says permafrost scientist Steve Kokelj.

Broadview | 18 min read

Single-parent scientists share their struggle

Before the pandemic, stem-cell biologist Prabha Devan was already getting up at 4 a.m. and working late in the laboratory so that she could combine her research with parenting her 7-year-old son. Then came COVID-19: schools closed and childcare options disappeared. “I am used to coping on my own, but this seems very bleak,” she says. Devan and other parents share how their lives were thrown into chaos by lockdowns and a lack of support for scientists with caregiving responsibilities.

Nature | 9 min read

Quote of the day

“Being Black in chemistry means you do not have the luxury of just being a chemist.”

Advocating for up-and-coming Black chemists is part of the path chosen by chemist Devin Swiner, one of the organizers of #BlackInChem week. (Chemistry World | 8 min read)

Leif-lovers, we are preparing a special penguin-seeking event for the next two weeks (when I will be on holiday and the regular Briefing will be on hold). So be sure to stay tuned.

In the meantime, hone your animal-spotting skills with herpetologist Earyn McGee’s weekly #FindThatLizard challenge. (And, unlike our beloved pal Penguinson, the lizards are REAL.) McGee is hosting a live #FindThatLizard special event tomorrow, and kindly provides some #FindThatLizard colouring pages as we anxiously await.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips

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