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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.
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.
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.
Features & opinion
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”.
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.
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With contributions by Freda Kreier