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Daily briefing: Today the US left the Paris climate agreement

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Astronaut Christina Koch during a spacewalk on the ISS

Astronaut Christina Koch during a spacewalk on the International Space Station in 2019.Credit: NASA/Alamy

ISS matures as science hub

Scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have conducted about 3,000 experiments. More than 40% have been biology or biotechnology experiments. The studies have produced various insights into how humans and animals adapt to lengthy spaceflight. Male mice, for example, can still produce healthy offspring after floating in space for 35 days. A comparison of various biological factors of two identical twins — one an astronaut aboard the ISS for a year and the other on Earth (and soon in the US Senate) — showed that being in space changes telomere length, gene expression, the gut microbiome and the dimensions of the artery that brings blood to the brain. Many, but not all, of these reverted to normal levels after the astronaut returned to Earth. “A lot of people don’t realize how much research has been done on the International Space Station around human health,” says former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan.

Nature | 5 min

Reference: Science paper

Scientists aghast at US election knife-edge

Many scientists have expressed disappointment that a land-slide victory for former US vice-president Joe Biden has not materialized from yesterday’s US election. As I write this, the overall outcome of the contest with incumbent President Donald Trump is still too close to call. Scientists who responded to a Nature poll overwhelmingly supported Biden, with climate change and the pandemic as their top issues. The fact that the election has come down to the wire is evidence that scientists haven’t properly communicated the dangers of rejecting science, truth and evidence, says science historian Naomi Oreskes. “It is depressing to see that the American electorate have not heeded the evidence of the last four years to give a strong message about the damage being caused by Trump's actions and behaviour, for their own country as well as the wider world,” says physicist Athene Donald.

Nature | 4 min read

The US has left the Paris climate deal

Regardless of who wins the US presidential election, the United States officially pulls out of the Paris climate agreement today. Although the United States played a major part in crafting the climate agreement, it will be the only one out of the nearly 200 parties to pull out of the pact. Nature explores how the move will dampen international efforts to halt global warming, shift the balance of power to China and tarnish US credibility on climate action.

Nature | 5 min read

Climate commitments. Map showing emissions pledges.

Source: Climate Action Tracker

The 10,000 reasons you’re tall (or not)

A study looking at more than 4 million people found around 10,000 DNA markers that seem to account for nearly all heritable variation in height. Twin studies suggest that about 80% of variation in height is down to genetics — but the genetic factors responsible have been frustratingly elusive. The new study included only people of European ancestry and identified only single-letter changes (commonly known as SNPs) in the genome that could explain height — not the genes themselves.

Science | 5 min read

Reference: American Society of Human Genetics conference presentation

COVID-19 coronavirus update

A man collapsed and died of unknown causes on a street near a hospital in Wuhan, China, on 30 January, during the first months of the pandemic.Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty

Politics hampers search for source in China

China and the World Health Organization (WHO) have agreed on how they will search for the origin of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In a first phase, scientists will review hospital records to look for details on the first patients and investigate what wildlife was sold at a market where a number of early cases emerged. In a second phase, scientists will look for the virus in animal hosts and try to find an intermediate host that might have carried the virus from bats, where it is thought to have originated, to people. But expectations are low. The WHO’s efforts to shed light on the virus’s origins started in February but have so far yielded little. Critics say that the WHO conceded too much, often behind closed doors, to maintain its access to the country — indirectly helping Beijing to whitewash China’s early failures in handling the outbreak.

New York Times | 18 min read

How not to present COVID data

Visualization fans recoiled on Saturday as UK government scientists illustrated the country’s grim COVID situation with a blizzard of confusing charts. James Cheshire, a geographic information and cartography researcher, looks sympathetically at how it all went wrong — and how we can get it right.

The Conversation | 6 min read

Notable quotable

“What’s important here aren’t the precise numbers. It’s the realization that, under any scenario, this pandemic is far from over, and, together, we have it within our power to shape what happens next.”

If most people in the United States wore masks in public, it would save more than 130,000 lives by March, notes National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins. (NIH Director’s Blog | 10 min read)

Features & opinion

Are infections linked with Alzheimer’s?

A fringe theory links microbes in the brain with some cases of Alzheimer’s disease. Most Alzheimer’s researchers, backed by a huge volume of evidence, think instead that the key culprits are sticky molecules in the brain called amyloids, which clump into plaques and cause inflammation, killing neurons. Now there are intriguing hints that the two ideas could fit together: infection could seed some cases of Alzheimer’s disease by triggering the production of amyloid clumps.

Nature | 12 min read

Fun integrity training in Malaysia

Researchers from a network of young scientists in Malaysia are using energetic, engaging and immersive workshops to bring responsible research conduct (RCR) to life, writes one of the founders. The workshops go beyond the box-ticking exercises that are all that some researchers learn of RCR — if they hear about it at all. “For best practices to take root, researchers need more than rote knowledge,” writes molecular biologist De-Ming Chau. He calls for this bottom-up initiative to inspire leadership from the top to make RCR the bedrock of research.

Nature | 5 min read

Redesign open science for Asia, Africa and Latin America

Psychologist Sandersan Onie co-organized a webinar on open science with a focus on Indonesia and was inspired by how participants overcame blackouts, exploding generators and political riots to attend. “The message was loud and clear: Indonesia wants to produce good research,” writes Onie. “But these communities’ needs differ from those that are part of mature research systems.” He outlines five strategies for building robust research systems in countries where research culture is young.

Nature | 9 min read

Quote of the day

“At the heart of this is a deep-rooted human need to light up the night. We are still in a sense afraid of the dark.”

Artificial light should be treated like a pollutant because of its pervasive effects on microbes, invertebrates, animals and plants, says ecologist Kevin Gaston. (The Guardian | 5 min read)

Reference: Nature Ecology & Evolution paper

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03126-2

Whether you’re worried about the US election or not, the New York Times Election Distractor offers a stress-relieving wheel-of-fortune of soothing sounds and images, including plenty of wonderful clips from its science videos and lovely birds photographed by its international correspondents. Ahhh.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by David Cyranoski

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