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Daily briefing: CRISPR scientists win the chemistry Nobel

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Jennifer A. Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier pose together for a portrait

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier share the 2020 Nobel chemistry prize for their discovery of a game-changing gene-editing technique.Credit: Alexander Heinel/Picture Alliance/DPA

CRISPR pioneers win chemistry Nobel

Two scientists who pioneered the revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR are the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna share the award for developing the tool that has inspired countless applications in medicine, agriculture and basic science. CRISPR, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a microbial ‘immune system’ that prokaryotes — that is, bacteria and archaea — use to prevent infection by viruses called phages. In a landmark 2012 paper in Science, the duo adapted the system to function in a test-tube and showed that it could be programmed to cut specific sites in isolated DNA.

Nobel-prize predictions have often included CRISPR, but there has been debate over who would receive the award among the technology’s many contributors. The work also sparked a fierce patent battle that rumbles on to this day. One of those who might have shared the award today, geneticist George Church, thinks the committee made the right call: “I think it’s a great choice,” he says .

Nature | 6 min read

Australian research gets billion-dollar boost

Australia’s universities and national science agency were thrown a lifeline in yesterday’s budget. Universities are set to receive Aus$1 billion (US$710 million) in funding to support research next year, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation will receive an extra Aus$459 million over four years. The country’s first budget since the pandemic began offers a major spending spree designed to kick-start the economy.

Nature | 5 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Cartoon of a person parachuting using a surgical mask through a sky filled with viruses

Illustration by Bex Glendining

Face masks: what the data say

The science supports the fact that face coverings save lives. Studies suggest that they cut down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus, and might reduce the severity of an infection by lessening the dose of the virus. But more-definitive answers about how well masks work or when to use them get complicated: biology, epidemiology, physics and human behaviour all factor in. Even the question of what kinds of study would provide conclusive proof is hard to answer. Nature takes a comprehensive look at the evidence available and the large, randomly controlled trials seeking answers.

Nature | 13 min read

Contact tracing Trump: ‘massive but feasible’

US President Donald Trump traveled to seven states within a week of his diagnosis. Tracking down all the people with whom he had contact and testing them would be a massive effort requiring cooperation between states. But it is feasible and could prevent further spread, says physician and contract-tracing specialist Emily Wroe. The White House reportedly does not plan to do any contracting tracing or release any information about the number of staff that were infected. “It's a missed opportunity to prevent additional spread,” says Wroe.

Nature | 6 min read

US regulators rein in vaccine rush

The US Food and Drug Administration has released stricter guidelines for drug developers who might seek an emergency-use authorization (EUA) for the COVID-19 vaccine. Manufacturers must now collect safety data on at least half of their clinical-trial participants for two months after they receive their final dose. (Most of the vaccine frontrunners require two doses.) And immunologist Moncef Slaoui — the science leader of the US government’s ambitious vaccine project, Operation Warp Speed — says the effort has urged manufacturers to refrain from pursuing an EUA until they are “able to immunize at least a relevant fraction of the population”. Approval of a vaccine that wasn’t widely available would be “a major disappointment” to the public, says Slaoui.

STAT | 5 min read

Notable quotable

“My main worry? The obstacles to getting pandemic vaccines out to the world when, and if, evidence of safety and efficacy do come in.”

Biotechnology venture capitalist Kate Bingham, the chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, says we must build global infrastructure to fast-track vaccines for future pandemics. (Nature | 5 min read)

Features & opinion

Why Nature must cover politics

Science and politics are inseparable, argues a Nature editorial. Nature plans to increase politics coverage from around the world, and to publish more primary research in political science and related fields. “The conventions that have guided the relationship between science and politics are under threat, and Nature cannot stand by in silence,” the editorial says.

Nature | 5 min read

Surgisphere scandal: what happened?

A questionable data set from a mysterious company forced high-profile retractions, cast doubt on drug trials and tarnished public trust amid a deadly pandemic. But the warning signs had been there all along, reports The Scientist. Its investigation describes a series of missed opportunities, wishful thinking and signs that a similar snafu could happen again.

The Scientist | 16 min read

Image of the week

Animation of the ozone hole between July and September 2020.

Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, ECMWF

The ozone hole over the Antarctic is one of the largest and deepest in recent years. In this animation, the colours indicate the amount of ozone in millipascals (mPa) in the atmosphere, with levels below one mPa appearing transparent. Last year, the hole was particularly small; both extremes were due to specific meteorological conditions. This year, a particularly strong, stable and cold polar vortex of low pressure encouraged the build-up of ozone-destroying chemicals, says the European Commission’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). The big hole “confirms that we need to continue enforcing the Montreal Protocol banning emissions of ozone depleting chemicals,” says Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of CAMS. (The Independent | 4 min read)

Quote of the day

“She’s so resourceful, she could start a lab on a desert island.”

Today’s Nobel winner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, as characterized by her PhD supervisor Patrice Courvalin in a 2016 profile in Nature.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02841-0

Today I enjoyed top US doctor Tony Fauci’s video interview with The New Yorker — and was that Leif Penguinson in the background??

(Psst… have you heard? We’ve written a new e-mail series that’s all about navigating your scientific career during a year like no other. Sign up here for free — and please let us know what you think of it at briefing@nature.com.)

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by David Cyranoski

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