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Daily briefing: How Biden will jump start climate action on his first day

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Rogue antibodies might drive severe COVID

Evidence is growing that self-attacking ‘autoantibodies’ could be the key to understanding some of the worst cases of COVID-19. One theory is that some people might be predisposed to producing autoantibodies, which then wreak havoc during an infection. Or infections might trigger the production of autoantibodies. In contrast to cytokine storms, which tend to cause systemic, short-duration problems, autoantibodies are thought to result in targeted, longer-term damage.

Nature | 10 min read

Secrets of the largest animal genome ever

The Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) has the largest animal genome ever sequenced. The fish has a whopping 43 billion base pairs, around 14 times longer than the human genome — although most of its genome is made up of non-coding and repeating regions. A genomic analysis confirms that the surface-breathing fish are the closest living relatives of land vertebrates that last shared a common ancestor around 420 million years ago. The lungfish, which has genes for lungs, articulated limbs, and detecting airborne smells, “is genomically halfway between a fish and a land-based vertebrate”, says co-author Siegfried Schloissnig.

New Scientist | 2 min read

Reference: Nature paper

US presidential inauguration

Meet President Biden’s science team

As US President Joe Biden arrives in the White House, Nature’s guide tracks the advisers and agency heads he has appointed who matter most to science.

• Geneticist Eric Lander has been selected as the presidential science adviser and leader of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy. Biden has elevated this position, for the first time, to the cabinet.

• Paediatrician, lawyer and former head of the Food and Drug Administration David Kessler will take on Operation Warp Speed, the US government’s ongoing effort to fund, develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

• Veteran regulator Michael Regan, who has a track record with environmental justice issues, has been appointed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

• HIV researcher Rochelle Walensky, Biden’s pick for the next head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has emphasized the need for science-based decision-making in the pandemic.

• Physician-scientist Francis Collins, best known for leading the Human Genome Project, will stay on as head of the nation’s leading biomedical-research funder, the National Institutes of Health.

• Gina McCarthy, a specialist in environmental-health and air-quality policy, will be the country’s first-ever climate czar. She will coordinate efforts with the full suite of federal agencies to advance Biden’s climate agenda in the United States.

• Former senator, presidential hopeful and secretary of state John Kerry will be the country’s first climate envoy. He will coordinate international climate negotiations and actions.

Nature | 7 min read & Nature | 6 min read (on Lander as science adviser) & Nature | 6 min read (on Regan and the EPA) & Nature | 5 min read (on Walensky and the CDC)

Biden’s first day will be a green sweep

Within hours of being sworn in as US president today, Joe Biden will launch a flurry of activity intended to undo the Trump administration’s environmental policies. The moves will “begin undoing some of the harmful actions that happened in the previous administration’s watch, so that we can move forward in combating the climate crisis”, says US climate czar Gina McCarthy. Biden will sign 15 executive orders, direct agencies to revive environmental regulations, reanimate a carbon-cost working group and rescind the permit for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. He will also kick off the process that will see the United States rejoin the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change in 30 days.

The Washington Post | 6 min read

Read more: Can Biden make good on his revolutionary climate agenda? (Nature | 9 min read, from November) & Can Biden rebuild the ravaged US Environmental Protection Agency?

(Nature | 8 min read, from November)

Notable quotable

“With a large enough crew, a professional disinfection company could apply disinfectants to the entire White House in six hours.”

Commercial cleaning executive O. P. Almaraz responds to news that the 5,000-square-metre White House, which has been the scene of COVID outbreaks, will be deep cleaned according to pandemic guidance before the new presidential administration arrives. (Scientific American | 5 min read)

Features & opinion

The top physics predictions of all time

Theory and experiment often advance hand in hand. But sometimes a theorist makes a stark prediction that shakes our understanding of nature. From James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic-wave-based calculation of the speed of light in air, to Maria Goeppert Mayer’ s anticipation of an entire new row of the periodic table, Physics World picks its ten greatest predictions in physics.

Physics World | 15 min read

The Pope’s poison trials on humans

In Europe in the sixteenth century, poison was applied to people — usually prisoners — in clinical trials to test antidotes, according to documents presented in The Poison Trials, a new book by historian Alisha Rankin. In one such trial, Pope Clement VII ordered two prisoners to be fed deadly aconite. The one anointed with a medicinal oil survived; the other suffered a slow, agonizing death. Clement concluded that it worked. Aside from these hair-raising episodes, the book argues that this was a new start for controlled trials, which had emerged in ancient Greece but then faded. Descriptions of the trials often appealed to their social benefit and stated that the participants had consented, presaging the bioethical requirements of modern trials.

Nature | 5 minutes

How science can put the SDGs back on track

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations’ flagship plan to end poverty and protect the environment. Researchers need to launch a rapid response to help end the current crisis and get onto a pathway to greater well-being and, eventually, prosperity and environmental sustainability, argues a Nature editorial. “The UN’s science advisers have been given a bigger responsibility than many are ever likely to face,” says the editorial. “Everyone must be ready to work with them and help them succeed.”

Nature | 5 min read

Quote of the day

“We’ve never had such an up close and personal view of a dinosaur before, at least in this part of the anatomy.”

Vertebrate palaeontologist Thomas Holtz welcomes a 3D reconstruction of the only known fossilized dinosaur cloaca. The Psittacosaurus’s rear orifice might have had offered visual and olfactory sexual signals, as well as many other functions. (New Scientist | 3 min read


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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Elizabeth Gibney and David Cyranoski

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