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Coloured SEM showing a cell (orange) being infected with UK B.1.1.7 variant SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (green).

Particles of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (blue-green; artificially coloured) infect a cell (orange).Credit: NIAID/NIH/SPL

Long-sought marker of vaccine efficacy

After people have received a COVID-19 vaccine, the levels of infection-blocking antibodies in their blood are a strong indicator of how much protection they’ve gained against the disease. A modelling study has shown that the presence of even small quantities of these potent ‘neutralizing antibodies’ indicates that a vaccine is effective at protecting against the disease. The study is the best attempt yet to define features of the immune response that can act as a proxy for protection against COVID-19, known as a ‘correlate of protection’. “Finding the correlate of protection has really been a holy grail for this disease, as for others,” says immunologist Daniel Altmann. “It’s surprisingly hard to do.”

Nature | 3 min read

Huge forestry experiment nears fruition

Last month, a plan to launch the largest forestry experiment in the United States — and perhaps the world — cleared a major hurdle. Controversially, the study would allow logging in a new research forest, in an attempt to answer a grand question: in a world where wood remains a necessary resource, but biodiversity is declining and temperatures are rising, what’s the best way to balance timber production with conservation? The advisory committee for the project, which comprises environmentalists, hunters, loggers and members of local Indigenous tribes, approved the latest research proposal on 22 April.

Nature | 6 min read

RIP tardigrades on the Moon

Sad news for the tardigrades that were on board Israel’s Beresheet mission, which crash-landed on the Moon in 2019. Researchers have learnt that the microscopic animals, which can survive the vacuum of space and heavy-duty doses of radiation, wouldn't have lived through the crash. Scientists put tardigrades into nylon bullets and fired them at various speeds (the tardigrades were in deep hibernation). The creatures survived impacts at speeds of up to 825 metres per second. “Above [those speeds], they just mush,” says astrochemist Alejandra Traspas.

Science | 6 min read

Reference: Astrobiology paper

Features & opinion

The pandemic is hobbling scientific mobility

More than a year after the first lockdowns and border closings, scientists around the world are still grappling with the pandemic’s impacts on mobility. Researchers are navigating a world where the rules — and the challenges — are seemingly in constant flux. Whether they are stuck far from home, separated from team members or forced to rethink their approach to recruitment, scientists tell Nature how they’re moving their science forwards.

Nature | 8 min read

Futures: Tabula rasa

A person’s efforts to manifest their desires from the multiverse lead to a lonely meal in the latest short story for Nature’s Futures series. “In this story, I wanted to search for a physical and emotional way back from where we’ve been, and the dinner table seemed like the best place to start,” says author S. R. Algernon. “After all this is over, I hope that we as a country and as a planet can come back to the same table again.”

Nature | 4 min read

Podcast: The forest fires that never die

Researchers have shown that fires can smoulder under snow in frozen northern forests before flaring up the following spring. Understanding how these ‘zombie’ fires start and spread is essential in the fight against climate change.

Nature Podcast | 17 min listen

Reference: Nature paper

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Image of the week

Different species of live plankton are visible in specially lit drops of sea water

Credit: Angel Fitor/Sony World Photography Awards

Photographer Angel Fitor says his project Sea Drops falls “somewhere between art and science”. Fitor used micropipettes to carefully place individual specimens of live plankton — tiny creatures measuring 200 to 1,500 micrometres across — inside specially lit drops of water to be photographed. The shots won third place in the Wildlife & Nature category of the 2021 Sony World Photography Awards. Following the photo shoot, the oblivious, unharmed plankton models were released into the sea.

See more of the month’s sharpest science shots, selected by Nature’s photo team.