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Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, the official global death toll has now exceeded one million people. Researchers warn that this figure probably vastly underestimates the actual number of people who have died from COVID-19. Epidemiologists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle estimate that, if current trends continue, by next January the total number of deaths will reach 2.5 million. That figure could be cut to 1.8 million if every country adopts universal mask-wearing. “I hope that there’s something about the notion of a million, which is such a powerful number, [that] this could potentially be a kind of wake-up moment,” says historian of medicine Naomi Rogers.
Plant “species are disappearing faster than we can find and name them”, says Alexandre Antonelli, the director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which has released a report on the state of the world’s plants and fungi. Two-fifths of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction, says the report. And some things are getting worse: almost 40% of vascular plants are under threat today, compared with 21% in 2016. We are “ignoring the potential treasure chest of wild species” that offers potential fuels, foods and medicines to humanity, says conservation scientist Colin Clubbe.
Reference: State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report
Indigenous physicians and translators are working to bring public-health guidance to their communities, some of which are among the hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Launched by medical student Victor Lopez-Carmen, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux and Pascua Yaqui Tribes, the programme is translating advice from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into 100 languages. The task requires more than word-for-word changes. “When you talk of [fatigue], hallucinations, or confusions … I had to get deeper and actually explain what these mean because it doesn’t have a specific word in Samburu,” says Emily Lerosion, a leader from the Samburu Tribe in northern Kenya.
Researchers have revealed how six simple precursors — water, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen and methane — can combine to make the building blocks of life. Scientists created an algorithm for the open-use platform Allchemy that ran through all 500 known prebiotic reactions. They were able to find many well-known pathways, such as ten ways to create the DNA component adenine. They also discovered 24 entirely new routes to prebiotic molecules — more than 20 of which they experimentally validated.
The origins of a stunning, single fossil feather — the first fossil feather ever discovered — has tantalised paleontologists since it was found in 1861. Now it’s “case closed”, says paleontologist Ryan Carney: the feather is from an Archaeopteryx. Not only that, it was probably matte black in colour. Carney and colleagues compared the feather’s fine details with those on more-complete Archaeopteryx fossils to make the match. Not everyone is convinced, but scientists welcome the insights into an iconic specimen. “To me, ultimately, the important thing is that this feather belonged to a small-winged Jurassic animal that could fly pretty well,” says vertebrate paleontologist Stephen Brusatte. “No doubt the warm, sunny lagoons of Jurassic Germany were aflutter with lots of flying dinosaurs.”
Features & opinion
Mathematician Vaughan Jones had little time for the stuffy halls of academia — he accepted his Fields Medal wearing a New Zealand rugby jersey. Jones won mathematics’ top prize for an invention that revolutionized the field of topology, the study of knots and other shapes. His invention, which became known as the Jones polynomial, seeded some of the ideas that physicists later developed into the emerging field of topological quantum computing. Jones died suddenly on 6 September, aged 67, from complications of an ear infection. “He was larger than life in many ways, but at the same time he was very humble,” says mathematician Dietmar Bisch, a long-time collaborator and friend.
A ‘superspreader’ event in the glamourous Austrian ski resort of Ischgl helped to kick off the coronavirus pandemic’s spread across Europe. Now, some COVID-19 survivors are suing the Austrian government for not acting earlier. The story highlights how little we know about how travel restrictions affect epidemics, and the complex reasons why they were not recommended early on. “There is certainly a stark shift in how it’s being discussed,” said Kelley Lee, who studies the impact of travel restrictions in this pandemic. “But the evidence hasn’t changed. We still have poor evidence.”
It’s Fat Bear Week! The annual face-off between the big, beautiful brown bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska is here. These burly babies' glorious girth will help them survive their winter hibernation. Vote for your favourite chunky cubby here. I also highly recommend spending some time relaxing with the bears on the Brooks Falls live webcam.
Send me your favourite healthy, spherical animals — plus any feedback on this newsletter — to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With contributions by Nicky Phillips