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Daily briefing: Tardigrades can also survive lethal radiation

Tardigrades just levelled up. Plus, the first room-temperature superconductor, and how anti-ageing drugs could help in the fight against COVID-19.

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Superconductivity laboratory

The superconductivity laboratory at the University of Rochester, New York.Credit: Adam Fenster

First room-temperature superconductor

It’s a new record for superconductivity: scientists have created a mystery material that seems to conduct electricity without any resistance at temperatures of up to about 15 °C , far warmer that the conditions usually needed for the phenomenon. But there’s a catch — the material, a compound of hydrogen, carbon and sulfur, survives only at extremely high pressures, approaching those at the centre of Earth. That means the material is unlikely to have immediate practical applications, and also is very tricky to analyse.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Antibody COVID-19 trial paused

Following yesterday’s news that Johnson & Johnson had paused enrolment in its COVID-19-vaccine trial because of “an unexplained illness in a study participant,” drug maker Eli Lilly has now paused a trial of its antibody treatment for people hospitalized with COVID-19 owing to a “potential safety concern”. The trial, sponsored by the US government, was investigating the benefits of treatment with the antibody drug together with the antiviral drug remdesivir, compared with treatment with only remdesivir. Earlier this month, Eli Lilly said it had applied for emergency-use authorization for their drug for people with mild to moderate COVID-19. Pauses in large drug trials are not unusual and do not necessarily suggest a problem with the therapy.

The New York Times | 6 min read

Princeton will repay female professors

Princeton University in New Jersey will provide female professors with almost US$1 million in back pay. The university reached the agreement with the US Department of Labor, which had alleged that the university had paid 106 female professors less than their male counterparts between 2012 and 2014. The university, however, maintains that it complied with the law.The university has also agreed to pay for equity training for its staff.

CNN | 3 min read

Water bears just levelled up

Tardigrades, also known as water bears, are pretty indestructible: they can survive extreme heat, radiation and even the vacuum of outer space. Now, scientists have discovered a species of water bear that can survive lethal ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Nifty fluorescent pigments in the tardigrades’ skin appear to convert the UV radiation to harmless blue light, protecting them against UV levels that are regularly used to kill hardy viruses and bacteria.

Science | 3 min read

Reference: Biology Letters paper

A tardigrade glowing blue under UV light against a black background.

Tardigrades are known for their indestructibility.Suma et al./Biology Letters

Features & opinion

Nature supports Joe Biden for US president

No US president in recent history has so relentlessly attacked and undermined so many valuable institutions, scientific and otherwise, as Donald Trump has during his presidency. We cannot stand by and let science be undermined, says Nature’s editorial. Joe Biden’s trust in truth, evidence, science and democracy make him the only choice in the US election.

Nature | 6 min read

Read more about why Nature covers politics.

Mystery dark-matter signal

Excitement caused by a mysterious signal from one of the world’s most sensitive dark-matter detectors earlier this year has led to a clutch of papers hoping to explain the phenomenon. Built to detect WIMPS — ‘weakly interacting massive particles, — the XENON1T experiment in June reported hints of much lighter particles, triggering a wave of excitement among theorists. Now, a leading journal has published five papers, and each offers a different explanation — including various exotic types of dark matter, ‘axion’ particles created in the Sun’s core and an anomalous magnetism of neutrinos. But the signal could still turn out to be a statistical fluke or the effect of tiny tritium interlopers.

Physics | 7 min read

References: Collection of Physical Review Letters papers.

Anti-ageing drugs could fight COVID-19

The human immune system is mind-bendingly complex, and ageing affects nearly every component. Particularly pressing amid the current pandemic is ageing’s impact on the immune system, which can leave people prone to infection and less responsive to vaccines. Some researchers are tackling this by tweaking vaccines to elicit a stronger response in older people, but others are taking a different tack entirely: rather than working with the limitations of the ageing immune system, they are planning to rejuvenate it.

Nature | 9 min read

Philadelphia’s Pap smear physician

Gynaecologist Helen Octavia Dickens would drive around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in an American Cancer Society van, giving Black women free Pap smears. From the 1950s onwards, she worked to make the simple tests more accessible to Black women, amid a deep and well-founded distrust of the US medical system among that group. Thanks in part to her, deaths from cervical cancer among the city's Black women fell by two-thirds within two decades. She saw her work as a form of racial progress, helping to address the inadequate health care available to Black communities in America.

BBC Future | 15 min read

Quote of the day

“The label ‘activist’ should be an honour, not a slur or reproach.”

For health professionals, COVID-19 has revealed how epidemics are political, argues Mary T. Bassett, with many now breaking the ‘unspoken commitment to neutrality’ in response. (Nature)

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With contributions by Davide Castelvecchi, Nicky Phillips and Smriti Mallapaty.

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