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Daily briefing: What we know about fast-spreading coronavirus variants

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Experimental setup for studying behavioral responses and brain activity.

A visual detection task from the study. The man is asked to determine the presence or absence of a black cup on the white desk.Credit: J.-A. Sahel et al./Nat. Med.

Optogenetics restores blind man’s vision

After 40 years of blindness, a 58-year-old man can once again see images and moving objects, thanks to an injection of light-sensitive proteins into his retina. The trial is the first successful clinical test of a technique called optogenetics, which uses flashes of light to control gene expression and neuron firing. In this case, the person’s damaged photoreceptor cells were supplanted by light-sensitive bacterial proteins, delivered by a virus into cells on his retina. Special goggles simplified incoming visual information from the real world into monochromatic images, to make it more easily detected by the bacterial proteins.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Nature Medicine paper

Nuclear fallout haunts Maralinga

Plutonium contamination around a former nuclear testing site in Australia is more reactive than previously thought and still poses a threat to people and wildlife. Seven nuclear bombs were dropped on Maralinga, a remote area in southwest Australia, by the British government in the 1950s and 1960s. The findings confirm long-held suspicions by the Anangu people that radioactive fallout continues to affect their people and land. Karina Lester, a second-generation survivor of the tests, welcomed the research. “Part of the concern that Anangu have had is that, without that data, we weren't able to get the support and understanding of [the impacts] these tests were having on people and on country,” she says.

ABC News | 6 min read

Reference: Scientific Reports paper

When Rat Island became rat-free

Eleven years ago, invasive Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) that had arrived on a 1780s shipwreck were eradicated from a remote island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The benefits to nature extend all the way down to the sea floor. With the return of native shorebirds as the apex predator, diverse species — from limpets to algae — recovered so that the island’s ecosystem looks the same as those of Aleutian Islands that never had rats. And the island has a new name: once called Rat Island, the idyll is now called Hawadax Island.

Scientific American | 3 min read

Reference: Scientific Reports paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

What we know about B.1.617 variants

Since the SARS-CoV-2 variant known as B.1.617 was first reported in India late last year, it has spread to dozens of other countries and become dominant in some regions. Three subtypes, known as B.1.617.1 (the ‘original’ B.1.617), B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3, each have a slightly different genetic make-up. Researchers are rushing to investigate how these variants might affect the trajectory of the pandemic. Discover how scientists are uncovering how quickly the variants can spread, their potential to evade immunity and whether they cause more severe disease.

Nature | 7 min read

Should I stay or should I go

Science journalist Martin Enserink was happy to participate in a trial for a candidate COVID-19 vaccine produced by the company CureVac. But when he became eligible for a proven vaccine, he faced a dilemma. Enserink explains why, after talking to scientists who had also volunteered for trials, he decided to drop out.

Science | 9 min read

Features & opinion

A physicist goes in search of our origins

A new book by CERN physicist Guido Tonelli offers a sweeping history of the Universe, in science and culture. Tonelli’s contribution — a bestseller in his native Italy — has a different flavour than do popular efforts written for an Anglophone audience, writes reviewer Andrea Taroni, the chief editor of Nature Physics. “It combines the humanistic approach that underpins much Italian education with scientific facts gleaned from a career as a nuts-and-bolts experimentalist,” writes Taroni. The result “is complex, mysterious and, at times, even messy — a bit like the Universe itself”.

Nature | 5 min read

Why we like pills and hate jabs

From vaccines to birth control, many people fear injections but embrace pills — a contradiction that has roots deep in our ancestral past and an important role in our present struggle with COVID-19, argues archaeologist Monica Smith. Looking at the long history of healing, Smith examines the challenges of imagining future benefits, our desire for autonomy and the relatively novel experience of a pain that protects.

Sapiens | 6 min read

Quote of the day

“I don’t know of any biologists who ever eat their organisms.”

Mathematician Steven Strogatz and neuroscientist Eve Marder, who works with lobsters and crabs, briefly discuss whether studying an organism puts you off eating it. (The Joy of x podcast | 41 min listen)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01439-4

Yesterday, Leif Penguinson enjoyed a sojourn on the world's smallest island nation, Nauru. Did you find the penguin? When you’re ready, here’s the answer.

This newsletter is always evolving — tell us what you think! Please send your feedback to briefing@nature.com.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Freda Kreier

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