NATURE PODCAST

Trump vs. Biden: what's at stake for science?

A conversation about the US election and the possible fallout for science, and are maternal behaviours learned or innate?

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Listen to the latest science news and stories, with Nick Howe and Benjamin Thompson.

In this episode:

00:46 US election

In the United States the presidential race is underway, and Nature is closely watching to see what might happen for science. We speak to two of our US based reporters to get their insight on the election and what to look out for. News Feature: A four-year timeline of Trump’s impact on science; News Feature: How Trump damaged science — and why it could take decades to recover; News: What a Joe Biden presidency would mean for five key science issues

12:36 Coronapod

With news of the US President Donald Trump contracting coronavirus, the Coronapod team discuss the treatments he has received and what this might mean for the US government. News: Contact tracing Trump's travels would require 'massive' effort

25:33 Research Highlights

How binary stars could become black hole mergers, and a prehistoric massacre. Research Highlight: The odd couple: how a pair of mismatched black holes formed; Research Highlight: A bustling town’s annihilation is frozen in time

27:36 Are parental behaviours innate?

Nature versus nurture is a debate as old as science itself,and in a new paper maternal behaviours are innate or learned, by looking at the neurological responses of adult mice to distress calls from mice pups. Research Article: Schiavo et al.

33:03 Briefing Chat

This week sees the announcement of the Nobel Prizes, so we chat about the winners and their accomplishments. News: Physicists who unravelled mysteries of black holes win Nobel prize; News: Virologists who discovered hepatitis C win medicine Nobel; News: Pioneers of revolutionary CRISPR gene editing win chemistry Nobel

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Transcript

Listen to the latest science news and stories, with Nick Howe and Benjamin Thompson.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, Nature's take on the 2020 US election…

Host: Nick Howe

And whether parental behaviours in mice are innate or learned. I'm Nick Howe.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I'm Benjamin Thompson.

[Jingle]

Host: Nick Howe

First up on the show, as I'm no doubt you're aware, there is an election going on in the United States. Like many of you in the US and elsewhere, Nature is closely watching the race, and at the end of last week, I called up my colleagues from across the pond to discuss Nature's election coverage, and what to look for in terms of science. It's worth noting, though, that the following segment was recorded before it was announced that Donald Trump, along with several of his administration, had tested positive for COVID-19. But with that in mind, I'm joined by Jeff Tollefson.

Jeff Tollefson

Hello, my name is Jeff Tollefson. I'm a senior correspondent for Nature in New York.

Host: Nick Howe

And Lauren Wolf.

Lauren Wolf

Hi, I'm Lauren Wolf. I'm the Bureau Chief for the Americas, which includes the US.

Host: Nick Howe

Thank you both for joining me. So, I guess the first thing that I wanted to talk to you guys about, both of you, is Nature is obviously a scientific journal – that is what we're most well-known for – so why is it that we're interested in this election? What's our angle on this coverage?

Lauren Wolf

Well, the mission of Nature News is to keep our readers informed and our readers are scientists, and so we cover the impacts for science. Elections like this one, where the US is the major funder for science across the globe, are very important.

Host: Nick Howe

And I think it's fair to say that in the year 2020, the word ‘unprecedented’ has lost pretty much all meaning – there have been so many firsts this year – and it's been a very interesting year for science and for politics, so I was wondering, for this particular election, what's at stake?

Jeff Tollefson

I think the short answer is everything. If you think about 2020, I mean, obviously, the pandemic is the key issue, and in many ways, that really kind of brings everything to light about this nexus between politics and science and policy and science. Truth and facts and evidence are just kind of out the door. We see it with the coronavirus, but you see it in all the other areas as well. This touches on public health. It touches on just how science is used across the US government. It touches on issues of scientific integrity. And frankly, it touches on issues of democracy. The scientific community has a statement online – it's been signed by more than 3,000 scientists already – that really doesn't focus on science at all. It focuses on core values. It says that what's really at stake in this election is the future of US democracy.

Lauren Wolf

What we've seen from this president is just a lack of caring about whatever he says and whether it's factual or not. And so, I think that you see the ripple effects of that around the world and you see, I can even say personally with family members, right, they listen to the things that they hear on the news, and that often comes from the president and comes from poor messaging from the CDC, perhaps, that has been politically influenced. And so, they think, ‘Oh, I'm asymptomatic so I don't need to be tested.’ I mean, all of these things are really important right now.

Host: Nick Howe

And that's an interesting point as well that you were talking about there, the more sort of international implications, because here I am in my London bedroom. It's easy for me, if I wanted to, to switch off from US politics and the US election. But what are the reasons why our audience around the world should be interested in this particular election?

Jeff Tollefson

The US is just a giant on the global stage, whether you like it or not. It's got a lot of people, a lot of money. It's a scientific powerhouse. So, if you're a scientist in particular, you care about what happens to American science. So, Trump has been pushing policies that are more and more nationalist, more isolationist. This summer, in the middle of a pandemic, he proposed pulling the United States out of the World Health Organization. On the climate side, the day after the election on 4 November, the US will officially exit the Paris climate treaty, and that changes the dynamics of the entire climate framework.

Host: Nick Howe

Yeah, I think throughout Trump's presidency, there have been certain policies that could be seen as protectionist or nationalistic, like the withdrawal from the WHO and the ban on travel from certain countries as well, and with this election, if it goes one way if Trump is elected or if it goes the other way and Biden is elected, how might that shift with both of those different people?

Jeff Tollefson

I think we're already getting hint of that. Just this week, we saw a new policy that would place further restrictions on visas for international students proposed by the Trump administration. So, if Trump is re-elected, that's the kind of policy that they're going to be able to finalise and push through next year. And who knows what follows after that. So, clearly, the administration is not backing down off of these policies, regardless of how loudly the scientific community screams. Under Biden, I think you can safely assume that these kinds of policies would be rolled back and reversed. And I think you can say the same thing about the environmental regulations, the climate regulations that Trump has rolled back. These are all things that it's easy enough to fix. One of the things that's really come up here, though, is that there are other kind of intangible effects that will be harder to reverse. These are the reputational effects. These are the perceptions of people around the world. As one policy expert I talked to said, the most damaging aspects of Trump's presidency are in many ways the most intangible.

Host: Nick Howe

We've talked a lot about different ways where Trump has maybe had a negative impact on science, but there have been some positives as well. I mean, I can think of space as one place where he seems to have put a lot of effort in, but is there anything where you think there's been a positive impact of Trump?

Lauren Wolf

Yeah, I mean, I would say space is probably the main one. I think he has set a pretty ambitious strategy there, mainly for humans going back to the Moon by 2024. And so, they've started this Artemis mission and infused a lot of cash into that. And he also re- established the National Space Council, which I think famously the Space Force as part of all of that. But I think as the commercial aerospace industry takes off, like these things are actually important, and the experts that we talked to said that it was a pretty solid move. So, I think when it comes to space, it's not all bad, right. And I also think that another area that he has invested in is in machine learning and quantum science, those kinds of areas in computing.

Jeff Tollefson

I would note that these are areas that kind of fit into the political narrative that's been advanced by this White House. They fit into the national defence narrative. They're a little bit easier to sell to a president who is focused on America first.

Host: Nick Howe

We've talked about Trump quite a bit. But what about Biden? Do we know what he stands for? Do we know what his impact will be on science? I must confess, as someone not in the US, most of what I know about Biden is his bromance with Obama, but I'm sure like he has some policies for science. Do we know what his stance is on those issues?

Lauren Wolf

I think in certain places we do know, such as he's laid out pretty clearly what his plan is for handling the pandemic. He's laid out a pretty tough platform for climate change. In other areas, I think it's a little less clear. What some of our reporting has shown is just it's not that he's anti-science, it's just that he hasn't really had a chance to say what his views on science are. I think you can project that maybe he would take the stance of Obama who was a pretty big science geek. A lot of people think that that's the way Biden will go.

Jeff Tollefson

Yeah, that is the clear expectation. I think the question will be how much of Biden's agenda he can actually push through what is likely to be a still divided country?

Host: Nick Howe

That's something I was wondering about as well. I don't think I'll be the first person to say that things have become very polarised in the US, and it almost feels sometimes the Democrats have positioned themselves as the party of science and Republicans otherwise. I don't know if that characterisation is entirely fair. But with things like this being brought in, is there a risk of these things just becoming more and more partisan issues? Is climate change just going to be forever partisan and it’s just going to go back and forth between Republican and Democrat?

Jeff Tollefson

That's a legitimate danger. It's not clear that Biden is going to come in and just magically unify the nation. That said, he does have a reputation for listening to people on both sides of the political aisle, and he's got a long track record of doing exactly that.

Lauren Wolf

One example of that, where Biden will have to not just go in and speak to his base and preach to the choir, is just in the pandemic response, right? If you want to make an impact and turn the pandemic response around, you're going to need to get everyone on board with following the guidance. I think because that has become so polarised, Biden will need to figure out a way of not just pushing through a mandate and telling everybody you must wear masks or you'll be kicked out or something like that. He needs to find a way of changing the messaging to bring everybody else on board.

Jeff Tollefson

I think it's also worth kind of thinking about this. You had mentioned Democrats positioning themselves as the party of science and the Republicans being portrayed as the opposite. I think the democrats are certainly doing exactly that. But when you think about the Republican party, it's worth noting that Trump really is a step apart in terms of what we've seen on any of these issues in the past. In our reporting, we talked to senior officials from other Republican administrations like George W. Bush, and you see that they are very critical of this administration. They describe the administration as anti-science in the same way that Democrats do. So, in some ways, Trump has taken things to such an extent that, oddly enough, the criticism of him is non-partisan, it's bipartisan. So, I think even there are a lot of Republicans, despite the large body of support that Trump still has, there are a lot of senior Republicans who would like to see a shift away from this type of rhetoric. So, we'll have to see what happens after the election.

Host: Nick Howe

And as my last sort of question, what should be the first thing we look out for in the first few hours or days after the election? What should we be watching out for?

Jeff Tollefson

Well, I think the first question, if Biden wins in particular, the first question is who he's going to start appointing to key scientific posts. Under the Obama administration, we had major scientific stars be appointed to major agencies. So, what does a Biden cabinet look like and what is the role of science and scientists within that cabinet?

Lauren Wolf

I would add, on the flip side of that, if Trump wins this re-election, I might expect that you see more scientists and officials resigned from science agencies. We've written about how these career scientists have been at these agencies for years and years and who probably love their jobs but maybe are feeling demoralised and not heard. Their results, their research, their work is kind of being put to the side or not listened to or their messaging is being changed. I think those people are probably holding on right now maybe. I don't know. That's my guess. And you might see that if they see another four years of this on the future, that maybe they'll just say, ‘I'm out,’ right, and leave.

Host: Nick Howe

Certainly, a lot to consider over the next few weeks, and Nature will be publishing a lot more stories on this topic, so make sure you check out nature.com/news for all the latest updates. We've also put all the stories Nature has produced so far in the show notes. But for now, Jeff and Lauren, thanks again for joining me.

Jeff Tollefson

Thank you.

Lauren Wolf

Yeah, thanks.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Next up on the show, it's time for Coronapod, and this week, I'm joined by Noah Baker and a special guest – it's Amy Maxmen. Hello to you both.

Amy Maxmen

Hi.

Noah Baker

Welcome back, Amy.

Amy Maxmen

Thanks. Miss you.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, you're a few weeks in now to going back to school, Amy. How's it going?

Amy Maxmen

It’s wonderful. I'm reading books again. I'm speaking with smart people and kind of learning a lot more about global health and public health.

Noah Baker

And I'm sure enjoying the great opportunity you have to just ignore everything to do with coronavirus and not keep up with any of the news.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, definitely keeping up with the news, but I'm spared having to say the thing right before 1,000 other people say the thing.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, I'm glad you've been keeping up with the news because there seems to have been a lot of it recently. Now, there's been plenty of talk in the show already about the US President Donald Trump. But this is Coronapod, and we can't ignore the fact that he was diagnosed with coronavirus last week. Now, there's a lot of hearsay and conjecture about all that’s going on, but what are the facts as we know them right now?

Amy Maxmen

So, last Thursday, he said that he and his wife had tested positive. And since then, there's been a lot of confusion about where they got it, how long that he knew that he had it for, what the White House is doing about it in terms of contact tracing, and also if it goes back to a ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett that was about 10 days ago now.

Noah Baker

Yeah, I think when we heard this news, I mean, of course, the entirety of the world's media has been covering this story. It's a big story whenever a world leader contracts a virus like this, but it's almost an even bigger story in the context of Donald Trump, who has spent a lot of time playing down the severity of this virus, who has been actively not wearing masks events and discouraging others from wearing masks. And now he's contracted the virus, there's kind of an almost sort of an irony in the fact that has happened, and so I think people are really fascinated to follow that story going forward.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, I mean and the timing of it is just incredible, right before our elections. Yeah, he has been downplaying the virus. Kind of the latest uproar, which, there's multiple uproars per day at this point, after he got out of Walter Reed Hospital, getting first class care, getting to try experimental therapies that nobody else has access to, he tweeted out don't be afraid of COVID because he's recovering.

Noah Baker

So, I think there's probably a lot to discuss in terms of public health experts around the world reacting to statements like that about not being afraid of COVID. But I'm also really interested in something else you just mentioned, which is these experimental therapies because Trump has been given a lot of drugs, like almost every single drug that we've talked about on Coronapod plus more he seems to have received in a very short amount of time. And that kind of throws up a whole load of questions, right? I wondered if it's worth having a little look through the kind of list of drugs that Donald Trump has been given and seeing if we can pick apart a little bit about what that might mean?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Actually, I've got some timings here may help. So, I understand that on Friday, he received this antibody cocktail. Now, some news has come out from the company which isn't peer-reviewed, to say that they think it seems to be helping people. But this is still early days, right?

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, it's early days. This is an antibody drug from Regeneron. If you remember, Regeneron also made the antibody therapy that was used for Ebola that kind of proved to be the best in the clinical trials. They have kind of a neat technology where they use humanised mice to produce antibodies. So, some people are shocked that he would get it so soon, but it's had a small phase II trial, and we know that for infectious diseases, it makes sense. Antibodies fight the virus, so it might really help, even in the earlier stage of sickness, to be infused with concentrated antibodies like this. It's kind of like convalescent plasma only way purer. To me, it made sense. I think that is a point that people might debate. But then after that, he got remdesivir.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s stick with the timeline, Amy, and we're still on Friday then. The president received his first dose of remdesivir, it was reported, in hospital.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, so that's when he got the antiviral. Again, this is something I was debating with friends, but to me, at that point, I was thinking just because he's in the hospital doesn't mean it's super severe. He's the president. It would make sense to me that they want to monitor a whole bunch of stuff so anytime anything is slightly off track, that they're going to be able to respond to it.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

We're now on to Saturday, and this is when it's reported that he received dexamethasone, the steroidal drug, after a couple of drops in his oxygen levels.

Amy Maxmen

And that was the one where it's like, okay, maybe this is pretty severe. Because dexamethasone, as we talked about before, that one handles the intense inflammatory response you might get from COVID. So, that suggests that the disease really has progressed quite a bit.

Noah Baker

It really feels like you've moved into a new stage of infection when you start talking about dexamethasone. Two days is very, very quick to get to that new stage, but maybe that's a different discussion. There's also more drugs that Donald Trump has reportedly been given or taken, and I'm going to run through these quite quickly – melatonin, vitamin D, zinc, famotidine and aspirin have all also been cited. And around the world, clinicians are scratching their heads about why these might have been given to Donald Trump. Some of them have had some early stage suggestions or there have been anecdotal suggestions that they might be useful in fighting the coronavirus, but none of them have any particularly strong evidence to suggest that they would have been useful.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, but maybe he had been taking melatonin all along. I take melatonin every now and then and when I when I feel like I have a cold, I might take some zinc. It doesn't feel like it's the worst. So yeah, I don't know the backstory. Maybe those are things he's been taking.

Noah Baker

I think that's precisely the thing right now. When you have the President of the United States in hospital just before an election, in the middle of a pandemic, everyone's going to be picking apart every single little thing that happens. And so, when you find out, it's really bizarre to say that the president is taking a zinc supplement, and that's making headlines. But that is the world that we're living in right now.

Amy Maxmen

Can I ask a question? What was it like when Boris Johnson had COVID? Was it this sort of rollercoaster?

Noah Baker

It was it was an odd one, I think, because it's something that, certainly in my lifetime, I've never had to sort of think about. What happens when the Prime Minister of your country gets sick, especially in a pandemic? And then it worsened and he moved into intensive care and required supplemental oxygen. There was a little bit of discussion of what would happen if he was too sick to govern. There was a temporary Prime Minister, that was sort of put in place as a kind of a placeholder, called Dominic Raab. It was an interesting time, I think, for the UK. And there was also a lot of discussion, certainly around myself and my peers, about what this might mean for the pandemic moving forward and the UK’s response. Does your leader getting infected and going through this process in any way change the way that the government might respond to it? I'm not totally sure that you could really say that anything changed as a result of Boris Johnson getting the virus. I would be very interested to see if Donald Trump getting the virus will have any impact on the administration's response or Trump supporters’ views on the virus at all. I dare say it won't, but I'd be interested to know if it might.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, I think I think some people did hope that it would make him really take this seriously. But what happened yesterday is he wanted to leave the hospital. So, he got into a car with Secret Service members, and this is one of these armoured vehicles where, of course, the windows are up. And we know he's still infectious, so he endangered their lives for sort of this photo op and then he proceeded to tell people that they shouldn't be worried about COVID and that there's great new medicines for it. So, if anybody expected him to completely have a turnaround, I think maybe they're realising that's not going to happen.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

One thing that doesn't appear to have been affected as a result of the president getting sick, and something that the three of us have talked about at length, is testing and tracing. And of course, the question of how he got it in the first place and other people who may have been infected, seems to have not be dealt with in a way that that we might hope.

Amy Maxmen,

Yeah, so we could start with testing. So, he had that little toaster-like testing kit from Abbott, the rapid testing kit that's 15 minutes to a result. But that's known to be a little bit less accurate than, say, the PCR-based test that you have to do in a lab. So, what they've been doing is getting those tests frequently and then continuing on, once everybody's tested, continuing on without masks, and that's not what the CDC had said you should do. So, first of all, they didn't do the testing part right. And then there's this contact tracing bit. So, what you would do if somebody test positive is ask where they’ve been for the last two days before they showed symptoms or before they had a positive test. That's generally an infectious period. So, they've done that, and there's a whole list of what happened in those two days. He went to the debates with former Vice President Joe Biden. He went to a rally of thousands of people in Minnesota. He met with supporters and donors at his golf club in New Jersey. And he's also been conferring with aides and of course there's all of the staff that work at the White House. And all of this was done without a mask. So, they've got that, but that's a ton of people. So, what you'd want to do then is figure out okay, who has he been within two metres of during that time period. But as far as I know, they still haven't really narrowed that down to a list. Apparently, some people are notified, but they're notified by email. And then, knowing that since then, at the ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, there were tons of people at the reception, and so far, ten of them, such as Governor Chris Christie, have tested positive, you'd really want to go dig deep in there. But that's not being done right now. The White House says they've got their own in-house epidemiologist that's doing it, but there's been a number of newspapers, such as the New York Times, that have reported that that's not really happening.

Noah Baker

So much of this is also predicated on understanding a clear timeline, and that's something that's also being really discussed in the world's press and so on. So, one of the key moments that threw doubt onto this timeline is that one of Donald Trump's physicians said that, at this point, 72 hours after a positive test, this is where we are in treatment. But that doesn't align with when Donald Trump said he'd been tested and actually would suggest that he had been to various events after receiving a positive test without telling anyone, including the presidential debate, at which he didn't arrive in time to get the test that he was offered. And so, people are really trying to dig into what this means because that has such big knock-on effects, the potential contact tracing or how much this might have spread moving forward.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, exactly. I don't know, of course, why they're so resistant to this. But one reason could be, there's a sort of blame implied. I think public health people would say, we don't want to have blame implied, we just want to make sure that people are protected and the disease stops from spreading. But if it turns out that, say, President Trump himself has spread this to others, that could show him in a negative light.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, at time of recording, the president is back in the White House and he said that he's feeling okay. What should we be looking out for in the next days or so forth of what might happen?

Amy Maxmen

It's an incredibly uncertain time and I think that's why there's conspiracy theories and constant panic on Twitter. It’s just completely uncertain. I mean, right, what happens to his health, but also what happens to the nomination of the next Supreme Court Judge and what happens to the next debate and what happens if he can't fulfil his term? What happens to the election? There's a lot of really big unknowns that this hurls forward.

Noah Baker

I think one thing that's also, if I could compare this to when Boris Johnson, our Prime Minister, was sick earlier on with coronavirus, there is another marked difference between that happening and what happened with Donald Trump, and that is the sort of pageantry of it. When Boris Johnson tested positive, he sort of quietly went to a hospital very discretely. He was sick, so he wasn't making public appearances. Whereas Donald Trump has been doing, some of the videos that we're seeing are almost cinematically choreographed and it's just very markedly different to watch as a member of the public looking at this.

Amy Maxmen

That’s really interesting.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let's call it for another edition of Coronapod and, Amy, thank you so much for coming back. Really looking forward to having you here on the show again in future. So, for the time being, Noah and Amy, thanks very much.

Amy Maxmen

Thank you.

Noah Baker

Bye, Ben, and bye, Amy.

Amy Maxmen

Bye.

Host: Nick Howe

More from the Coronapod team next week. Coming up in this week’s show, we'll hear how researchers have been looking into the brains of mice to help answer an age-old question over whether parental behaviours are hard-wired or learnt on the job. But right now, it's time for the Research Highlights with Dan Fox.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

In 2019, gravitational wave observatories made a remarkable sighting – detecting the merger of two black holes of substantially different sizes. Now, astrophysicists have calculated that the merged pair could have originated from two stars orbiting each other – a binary star system. Previously, it was thought that the only plausible way this could occur would be if black holes formed independently and then came into each other's orbit. But now, by refining existing computer models of the evolution of binary stars, scientists have found that if the two stars were of specific masses, they could collapse into two black holes of very uneven sizes continuing to orbit each other until they finally merge, just like the 2019 merger. Get sucked into that research at the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

A baby, a child only a few years old, and a teenage girl adorned with bracelets – these are some of the remains discovered at the scene of a prehistoric massacre that took place more than 2,300 years ago. The remains of 13 people have been identified by researchers in the settlement of La Hoya in what is now Spain. By assessing the bones, the team found cut marks, suggesting that the attackers had amputated limbs and decapitated at least one person. No weapons were found with the bodies to indicate that they had tried to defend themselves and the bones showed evidence of burning. After the massacre, La Hoya was abandoned. The remains suggest that the prehistoric peoples in the region were capable of extreme organised violence long before the arrival of the Romans. Unearth more of that research at Antiquity.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Robert Froemke from New York University in the US is interested in parenting skills. Are they instinctually hardwired into the brain from birth, or are they learnt on the job and developed with practice?

Interviewee: Robert Froemke

I think really, this is one of the oldest questions in not just neuroscience but maybe biology. This is fundamentally about nature and nurture.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

To help better understand the roles of nature and nurture, Robert has been studying how the brains of female mice respond to a particular distress call that mice babies, known as mice pups, make when they're left outside of the nest.

Interviewee: Robert Froemke

In the wild, this might occur when mouse parents are moving their nests around, right. They kind of need to be on the go so that predators don't find them, but most babies don't really walk around that much. Mice are actually born blind and deaf and so mouse mothers drag the pups with them. If they attach onto the mother's ventral surface, pups can fall off, and when they fall off from the course of transit, they then begin to make these distress calls.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Now, these distress calls are in the ultrasonic range, beyond what humans can hear, and mice mothers are incredibly attuned to them, and will use them to quickly seek out a lost pup and drag them back to the warmth and safety of the nest. But this response isn't seen with virgin female mice who haven't had any pups.

Interviewee: Robert Froemke

They’ll tend to stay away from pups. They'll tend to stay away from speakers that are playing these sounds. But if we take the virgin females and co-house them with an experienced mother and her pups, after a few hours to a couple of days, that virgin female becomes a co-parent or a nanny herself, and she'll often begin retrieving pups who are lost from the nest.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So, when co-housed with mothers, these virgin females quickly go from not responding to or avoiding these distress cries to demonstrating parenting behaviours. Robert and his colleagues showed that this change in behaviour went hand in hand with changes in the brain activity of the virgin mice. Observing how these brain changes occur is helping them to work out whether parental behaviours are innate or learned, whether it's nature or nurture. It turns out the key to this was the rhythm of the pups’ distress calls, which you can think of like the timing between the ‘wa’s in a human baby’s cry. Pups don't always make exactly the same distress calls each time and these distress calls can vary between pups. The brains of mouse mothers showed activity against a range of synthesised distress call rhythms. In contrast, the virgin mice only show brain activity when they heard a specific sort of cry.

Interviewee: Robert Froemke

In virgin females, there’s extremely narrow, sharp tuning to the most common rhythm, for around 200 milliseconds between each of those little ‘wa’ syllables, and that seems to be hardwired and feature present even before parental experience begins.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So, this one rhythm is registering in the brains of virgin females. Robert showed that it's being picked up by a select group of cells in the left-hand side of the mouse brains, and hearing it repeatedly leads to some changes.

Interviewee: Robert Froemke

There’s a very fast form of adaptation. The inhibitory sub-circuits in this part of the brain seem to be exquisitely sensitive to that 200 millisecond inter-syllable interval. And basically, the inhibitory system kind of goes quiet. That then leads to almost like literally turning up the volume on incoming sounds, presented at that rhythm, like these baby cries. When these sounds are presented sort of over and over again, that leads to sort of a long-term rewiring, and for the full complement of exposed cries comes to be kind of much more robustly encoded in the cortex.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

The hardwired response then starts the ball rolling and, over time, repeated exposure strengthens and expands the response so that the virgin mice become more attuned to a range of cries, which went along with them displaying more parental behaviours. So, it looks like there's two systems at play. Female mice have an innate response to a pup’s cry and a plastic response that changes and expands over time. And this brings us back to the initial question, does parental behaviour have its roots in nature or nurture? This work suggests that for mice, at least, it's a bit of both. There's still a lot to uncover, though. For example, about the role of the hormone oxytocin, and whether a similar process occurs in mice after they give birth. For the virgin mice, however, Robert reckons that this balance between nature and nurture helps speed up the learning process.

Interviewee: Robert Froemke

It’s not the case, it seems, at least for these very important parental responses, that the brain is just a blank slate and everything can be learned by experience, because animals probably have a very short amount of time to adequately attend to the young before the pups might be eaten or discovered by a predator. And so, having some intrinsic tuning might be important for kick-starting the process. But then, of course, because life is so complex, dynamic and dangerous, we think it also makes sense that there's a lot of plasticity that adjusts that, enabling the animals to respond appropriately regardless of the situation.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

That was Robert Froemke from New York University. You can find a link to his paper in the show notes. Finally, on the podcast, it's time for the Briefing chat and, this week, I'm joined by the brains of the Nature Briefing, Flora Graham. Flora, it's been a while since we've had you on the show. Thank you so much for joining me.

Flora Graham

Oh, it's great to be here. Thank you.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

It's Nobel's week, Flora, and this is your third year in a row joining us to talk about the new laureates. So, let's start, shall we, with Monday's announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, which this year, has been awarded to a trio of virologists.

Flora Graham

That's right, Harvey Alter, Charles Rice and Michael Houghton have won this year, and they discovered the virus hepatitis C, which is an extremely virulent disease.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, they've been awarded for different aspects of their research into hepatitis C. What have they done specifically?

Flora Graham

At first, it was in the 1970s. Alter was studying the transmission of hepatitis, of liver inflammation, specifically from blood transfusions. And he built on work that discovered hepatitis A and B, to find that there was a third blood-borne virus that could transmit the disease. In his work, it was in chimpanzees. Then Houghton, he identified the virus on the basis of genetic material from infected chimpanzees, and he showed that it was a new kind of RNA virus and he and his colleagues, they are the ones who named it hepatitis C. Then a team led by Rice used genetic engineering techniques to characterise a portion of the genome responsible and that demonstrated its actual role in causing liver disease.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And in terms of liver disease then, some of the numbers are quite startling.

Flora Graham

The World Health Organization estimates that 71 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis C, which causes 400,000 deaths a year, despite the fact that we can actually cure most people who are infected. But those cures, very sadly, don't get to everyone who needs them.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, this sort of basic understanding then has led to these treatments, I suppose.

Flora Graham

I think that's why this is really Nobel-worthy work. Researchers are hoping that the prize will really put a spotlight on the need to get these treatments to more people and reinvigorate efforts to develop a vaccine for hepatitis C.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you mentioned there that these three laureates worked as part of bigger teams, which, of course, is how a lot of science works, but it makes it kind of difficult to sort of divide up who wins the prizes and who and who doesn't maybe.

Flora Graham

I think this question is getting more and more urgent every year with the Nobels. Scientists are really keen to emphasise their colleagues and very rightly so. In particular, Houghton, he's previously turned down quite large prizes. He turned down a big Canadian prize because a couple of his collaborators were pivotal to the work could not be included because of a limit of three researchers. But in this case, he did say, ‘I think it'd be really too presumptuous of me to turn down a Nobel. Their regulations are based on Alfred Nobel's will and I don't think it's feasible to discuss that kind of thing with them.’ So, for him, it's still worth taking, but he's made it very clear, as, frankly, most of the winners if not all of the winners this year have, that they are only a few among many deserving scientists.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Flora, let's move on to Tuesday then and the Nobel Prize for Physics, and that was awarded to three researchers for their work relating to black holes.

Flora Graham

That's right. I think this is a discovery that any science fan can get behind. It’s probably one of the celebrity discoveries of physics, which is the theoretical and the observational underpinning of black holes. So, Roger Penrose, a giant in the field, he worked very closely with Stephen Hawking on research providing the mathematical underpinnings of the theory of black holes. And then his co-winners who share the other half of the prize are Andrea Ghez, and Reinhard Genzel, and they discovered an actual black hole, which is the giant supermassive one that's at the centre of our own galaxy.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, and as I understand it, their work was very much about looking at how stars were spinning around what turned out to be a black hole, and actually really improving the ways that that could be done.

Flora Graham

It was very highly technical work, and it's great to see that highly technical experimental astrophysics win hand in hand with the theoretical side of the equation.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And that's what Roger Penrose won his share of the prize for then, and his work goes back to the 60s.

Flora Graham

That's right. He wrote some seminal papers throughout the 1960s that demonstrated how Einstein's theories of general relativity did lead to black holes forming under the right conditions. And now, to have that observational data to back it up yet again just reinforces the power of Einstein's theory.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Flora, you mentioned, Stephen Hawking, and there was a lot of discussion about whether he was in line to win one, but, of course, he has sadly passed now.

Flora Graham

Yeah, it is one of the kind of cruel quirks of the Nobel that it can only go to living scientists. But some scientists have said that this really is his to share in a way. Andreas Eckart, he's an astrophysicist, he said that ‘giving the prize to Penrose is indirectly also giving it to Stephen Hawking and it's honouring the immense effort that these two people and their teams put into this amazing seminal work.’ And, of course, there's another female winner this year. I've been doing these Nobel podcasts with you for three years, and this is the second time that I've had the pleasure of discussing a female physicist’s work. And what Ghez said specifically about this was that ‘the field has so many pleasures,’ and as a former physicist myself, I could definitely get behind this, that she hopes that herself as a role model can encourage other young women into the field.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Absolutely. And that's been a thought that's been echoed just today by one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. And this was only announced very briefly before we started recording, but who's won here, Flora?

Flora Graham

This is a very exciting prize. I think the first line of our story says it all. It's CRISPR. This is something that people have been on tenterhooks for quite a while seeing whether the Nobel would go to CRISPR. It’s such a key transformative technology. It's gone to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who worked together on the technology. Again, this is the case where they were very keen to emphasise how many other scientists did play a pivotal role in this discovery. But, wow, to see these two women getting their chemistry Nobel it's quite a fantastic image to see.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let's talk about CRISPR then and it really is a technique that has revolutionised science, and we need to be a bit careful with that word, but I think in this case, it is particularly apt. What does it do for someone who doesn't know what it is?

Flora Graham

Well, I admit I had to do some learning to understand CRISPR myself, and I found it really useful to understand that CRISPR is kind of the immune system that bacteria and archaea use to prevent their own infection by viruses called phages. And what scientists were able to do is kind of harness CRISPR and specialised enzymes that are associated with CRISPR to kind of like snip out and delete areas of the genetic code and take out bits we don't want, and then down the line, that they might be replaced with other things or simply deactivated, and that has been useful for everything from agriculture to medicine, to you name it, any biological system probably is having somebody look at it through a CRISPR lens at this moment.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And as you say, it’s been used in a wide variety of different situations, and there’s been a lot of debate up until today as to who might be awarded this prize for CRISPR work.

Flora Graham

Absolutely. Even some of the large prizes that have gone to CRISPR technology have included other collaborators with Charpentier and Doudna and also people who did the work separately in other institutions. It’s a point that Doudna actually said herself when we spoke to her for our story. The first thing she went to was really ‘how many wonderful scientists,’ she said, ‘who will never receive this for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that they are wonderful scientists.’

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you mentioned there that there’s some quotes from her in our story, and I think we have to talk about us getting hold of her. We know that Nature News, we’re here on point with the latest breaking science news, but in this case, our colleague Heidi Ledford broke the news to Jennifer Doudna that she had won the Nobel Prize.

Flora Graham

Oh, I really envy Heidi for this. Yeah, so she phoned her up in the middle of the night because the prizes are announced here in Europe, of course, a lot of scientists, for example, on the far-west coast of North America, they’re fast asleep. So, someone gets the treat of waking them up and giving them the good news and, in this case, it was our colleague Heidi Ledford. What an amazing moment.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, I mean, I spoke to Heidi about this on email. She was, of course, very, very busy getting quotes from other scientists and writing up the story, and she said that Doudna sounded ‘very sleepy and a bit annoyed, then confused.’ And then Heidi goes on, ‘and her confusion confused me for a split second. I thought, wait, maybe she didn’t get the Nobel. Have I just told this poor woman that she’s gotten the Nobel and she hasn’t?’ And then she said that someone else was calling her and that she had to go, and then Heidi phoned her back and apparently, Jennifer Doudna had a bunch of messages saying congratulations.

Flora Graham

I heard that, as well, Harvey Alter, who won the Medicine Prize, the phone had to ring three times before he woke up, and apparently, he and his wife were well annoyed by the time they decided to actually answer and see who it was, but then, of course, delighted, ultimately, when they did answer the phone. I think it speaks to the fact that they are humble people and the fact that, in these cases, they’ve all really bent over backwards to talk about how deserving their colleagues are, that they don’t think, ‘Oh, I’ll wait up and see if the Nobel committee phones me tonight.’ They’re fast asleep.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, thank you for joining me once again, Flora, and listeners, if you’d like to know more about this year’s laureates then make sure you check out the show notes where you’ll find some links to articles detailing their accomplishments. Also, if you want to keep up to date with all the latest updates from the world of science and hear more from Flora, then make sure you check out the Nature Briefing. Head over to the show notes, once again, to find a link on where to sign up.

Host: Nick Howe

That’s all for this week. But as always, you can get in touch with us either on Twitter – @NaturePodcast – or by email – podcast@nature.com. Send us a message and we might read it out on the show. I’m Nick Howe.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson. Thanks for listening.