Daily briefing: ‘Previously unnoticed’ glands found in humans’ heads

Oncologists spot a hidden pair of spit glands, how obesity could create problems for a COVID vaccine and Nature’s pandemic progress report.

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Anatomical artwork of cervical spinal nerves

Science Photo Library

New spit glands found in our heads

Oncologists have stumbled on a “previously unnoticed” pair of salivary glands while studying the effect of radiotherapy on salivation and swallowing. The elusive glands are in an inaccessible spot and can be spotted only with very sensitive imaging, such as positron emission tomography and computed tomography. Researchers say the glands could help to explain why cancer treatment can cause dry mouth and swallowing problems, especially because doctors haven’t known to spare the organs from damage.

The New York Times | 4 min read

Reference: Radiotherapy and Oncology paper

Baby tyrannosaurs were Chihuahua-sized

Scans of the first known fossils of embryonic tyrannosaurs reveal that they were about the size of a small dog when born. A lower jaw bone and a foot claw, which were found at different sites in western North America, are thought to be from two babies that were 70 and 90 centimetres long. The embryos were not from Tyrannosaurus rex, but an earlier species of related tyrannosaur that has not been identified — which was, if you believe the accompanying illustration, super cute and fluffy.

National Geographic | 7 min read

Indian laws confound microbe discoveries

Researchers in India are frustrated that the country’s biodiversity laws are preventing them from sharing microbe species with the world. The International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes, which validates newly discovered microbes, requires that each taxon be deposited in two culture collections in two countries. But Indian law requires that non-Indian researchers who want to access cultures from India get government permission, a lengthy process that often discourages researchers from trying to access those strains. The end result is that many strains don’t get validated, say researchers. The situation is ironic, notes taxonomist Yogesh Shouche, because if the country can’t document its own microbial riches, “the claim on this wealth is meaningless”.

Science | 5 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

A patient suffering from the COVID-19 rests on his bed as paramedics transfer him between hospitals in Mexico City

Obesity is linked with diabetes, heart disease and other risk factors for severe COVID-19 symptoms.Credit: Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Obesity could create problems for a vaccine

Researchers fear that vaccines might not be as effective in people who are obese — a population that is already highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Obesity can cause chronic inflammation and curtail gut microbes, both of which can affect immune response. Studies of vaccines against influenza, hepatitis B and rabies have shown that responses in people who are obese are reduced compared with those in people who are lean. The good news is that there might be ways to compensate, such as by giving people who are obese extra doses of vaccine.

Nature | 7 min read

A pandemic progress report

A safe and effective vaccine represents the most powerful weapon against the virus, at both the individual and the population level — but it will not be the only one, says a Nature editorial. Mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing will need to continue for some time. The second instalment of Nature’s series of coronavirus progress reports outlines the outstanding questions about immunity and calls for radical transparency from drug companies and their academic partners to maintain public trust.

Nature | 7 min read

Scienceville, home of genomic epidemiology

Genetic analysis of which substrains of SARS-CoV-2 are moving through a community can help to pinpoint where outbreaks are starting. The Washington Post uses a fictional town called ‘Scienceville’ to illustrate how the technique works. Mutations in the virus can also help to indicate when and how infections entered a country. “It is almost like a passport that gets stamped whenever a virus jumps between countries,” said Cheryl Bennett at the GISAID Initiative, a global database of coronavirus genomes.

The Washington Post | 17 min read

Notable quotable

“People are tired of it. And yet the virus is not tired of us.”

Persevere with hand-washing, social distancing and wearing a mask, says Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health. (NPR | 10 min read)

Features & opinion

The secretive cradle of computing

The first authorized history of the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) pulls back the curtain on one of the world’s pre-eminent secret intelligence agencies. Although the focus of historian John Ferris’s book is more military than scientific, it tells a global tale of mathematics, engineering, data sciences and linguistics.

Nature | 6 min read

‘Job number one is to listen’

Surveys suggest that many scientists from sexual and gender minorities (LGBT+) experience hostility or a sense of invisibility at work — and evidence shows that they are being driven out of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields. Nature spoke to six LGBT+ academics about the effects that fighting prejudice, assumptions and bias has had on their careers; how colleagues can be effective allies and advocates; and what policies institutions could have to make STEM workplaces more inclusive.

Nature | 15 min read

Quote of the day

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off.”

OSIRIS-REx lead scientist Dante Lauretta celebrates the NASA spacecraft’s successful manoeuver to collect a sample from the surface of asteroid Bennu. (The Guardian)

Could you draw yourself doing your favourite experiment in 60 seconds? Crystallographer Claire Murray would like to see it — and so would I.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature BriefingWith contributions by Nicky Phillips

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