Daily briefing: Human-made stuff outweighs all life on Earth

The mass of human-made things just exceeded the planet’s total living biomass. Plus, the coolest molecules of the year and how children’s immune systems evade COVID-19.

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Dam under construction

Dams are just one type of infrastructure that can cause environmental damage.huseyintuncer/iStock/Getty

Human stuff outweighs all life on Earth

The mass of human-made things just exceeded Earth’s total living biomass. Researchers compared the estimated dry weight of all living things on our planet — approximately 1.1 teratonnes, not including their water — with the estimated mass of all of our stuff, which is dominated by concrete and aggregates (such as gravel). With anthropogenic mass now doubling roughly every 20 years, the cross-over point has just been reached, give or take 6 years. Our buildings and infrastructure outweigh all the world’s trees and shrubs, and our plastic outweighs the dry weight of all animals. Of course, not all human-made things are created equal, whether in terms of their benefit to people or their environmental cost. “It’s not that infrastructure per se is bad,” says environmental anthropologist Eduardo Brondizio. “It’s how we do infrastructure that is the problem.”

Science | 5 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Universal flu vaccine shows early promise

An experimental universal flu vaccine has shown good results in a small early trial. The vaccine targets the bottom part, or stalk, of the haemagglutinin (HA) proteins that stud the surfaces of influenza viruses. HA’s stalk is less prone to the mutations and gene swaps that make it so difficult for current vaccines, which target the head, to ward off all strains of the flu. The study shows for the first time that “you can develop a vaccine strategy that produces stalk-reactive antibodies in humans”, says virologist Florian Krammer.

Science | 6 min read

Reference: Nature Medicine paper

COVID-19 vaccine update

A health-care worker takes a nasal swab from a girl being held in her mother's arms.

Children rarely show symptoms of COVID-19, even if they are infected.Credit: Thomas Lohnes/Getty

How kids’ immune systems evade COVID

A growing body of evidence suggests why young children account for only a small percentage of COVID-19 infections: their immune systems seem better equipped to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 than are adults’. Some children who do get infected never test positive for the virus on a standard RNA test, even if they develop symptoms and have antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2. Their immune system sees the virus “and it just mounts this really quick and effective immune response that shuts it down, before it has a chance to replicate to the point that it comes up positive on the swab diagnostic test”, says immunologist Melanie Neeland. The source of children’s immune advantage is thought to arise from one — or several — of these factors:

• Children’s T cells are untrained, so they might have a greater capacity to respond to new viruses.

• Children might have a strong innate immune response from birth, although that raises the question of why it isn’t seen with other viruses that can cause severe disease in children.

• It could be thanks to the protection of antibodies to seasonal common-cold coronaviruses, which run rampant in children.

• Kids might receive a smaller dose when exposed to SARS-CoV-2, because their noses contain fewer of the ACE2 receptors that the virus uses to gain access.

Nature | 5 min read

UK warns: no jab if you have bad allergies

British regulators have recommended that people with a history of severe allergies should not get the Pfizer—BioNTech COVID vaccine. The advice came after two health workers had allergic reactions shortly after having the jab, which was rolled out to thousands of people in the United Kingdom on Tuesday. Both people have a history of serious allergies and carry adrenaline pens, and both have recovered. The warning “is common with new vaccines”, says Stephen Powis, the medical director for the National Health Service in England. “The fact that we know so soon about these two allergic reactions and that the regulator has acted on this to issue precautionary advice shows that this monitoring system is working well,” says immunologist Peter Openshaw.

BBC | 5 min read

Notable quotable

“In a year where we haven’t had a lot of good news, this is a bit of good news. And I think we should take a moment to acknowledge that — and then we’re all going to get back to work.”

Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser of Canada’s health regulator, announces that the country has approved the Pfizer—BioNTech COVID vaccine. It will be rolled out to the first recipients within days. (Global News | 5 min read)

Features & opinion

A green sea turtle among the corals at Lady Elliot Island, Australia

In Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, most sea turtles being born are female because of warming temperatures — a discovery made when researchers analysed male and female populations.Credit: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty

Accounting for sex and gender makes for better science

At the end of last month, the European Commission announced that its grant recipients will be required to incorporate sex and gender analyses into the design of research studies. The policy will affect researchers applying for grants that are part of the commission’s 7-year, 85-billion (US$100-billion) Horizon Europe programme, which is due to begin next year. “The inclusion of sex and gender analyses can also be revelatory,” notes a Nature editorial, and not accounting for it has been catastrophic in some cases, such as when women have not been included in drug safety trials.

Nature | 5 min read

C&EN’s molecules of the year

Grab a hot toddy (or a cold bevvy — I see you, Southern hemisphere!) and cosy up with the coolest molecules reported this year, as chosen by Chemical & Engineering News. From a 16-nanometre-wide molecular wheel — the largest aromatic ring ever synthesized — to a molecular machine that uses redox chemistry to thread rings two at a time onto a polymer chain, these molecules (and their accompanying diagrams) are the perfect reminder of the delights of discovery.

C&EN | 5 min read

News & views

Cap and trade without infringing sovereignty

One of the knottiest problems faced by international agreements for tackling climate change is how to allocate mitigation efforts fairly across nations, without increasing the overall global cost, and without asking poor countries to accept large amounts of financial assistance that raise concerns about infringements of national sovereignty. Computational models show that moderate deviations from uniform carbon pricing could achieve the goal without straining either the economies or sovereignty of nations, writes international-affairs researcher Wei Peng. “The authors’ findings highlight an advantage of the Paris [agreement] approach,” writes Peng. “An equitable outcome can still be achieved when international transfers are reduced.”

Nature | 7 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Quote of the day

“It’s a sketch for a better world.”

Composer Max Richter and filmmaker Yulia Mahr have created a moving piece of music that celebrates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the recorded voice of Eleanor Roosevelt. Happy Human Rights Day! (BBC Radio 3 | 4 min read)

Yesterday I told you how Charles Darwin’s family loved the delightful pictures his children drew on the back of drafts including On the Origin of Species — but I suggested that kids should no way, definitely not draw in our books.

A few readers wrote to set me straight. “It reminds me that science is a human endeavor, and my kids are my own little humans,” writes Michael Anenburg. “There’s nothing like going back to old notes and seeing a ‘I love you dad’ hidden in between the equations!”

“It depends!” notes Amy Gilliland. “Does the drawing honor the book? That shows engagement with the material in a creative way.” Otherwise, “some books have completed their mission and are good targets for an art project”.

And Jacques Paiement reminds me that kids and parents can inspire each other with art, as with physicist Roger Penrose, his father Lionel and their ‘impossible objects’ that inspired artist M. C. Escher.

Thanks for changing my mind, and I hope my children never read this. And thanks for all of your correspondence — your e-mails are always welcome at, and we read every one.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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