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Daily briefing: Autoimmune disease — when our defences turn on us

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Aerial views over the Whitsunday Island chain and the Great Barrier Reef.

Matthew Micah Wright/Getty

Great Barrier Reef not listed as ‘in danger’

The World Heritage Committee, consisting of 21 member-states, agreed to not place Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on the list of world heritage sites that are “in danger”. The decision ignores a scientific assessment by the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO, which concluded that the reef was in danger from climate change and should be added to the list. UNESCO and its advisers have reiterated that the reef has met the criteria. “The facts are the facts and the science is the science. The committee supported the science but did not support the ‘in danger’ listing,” says Fanny Douvere, head of UNESCO’s marine programme.

The Guardian | 5 min read

Features & opinion

Audio: How we learnt to love carbs

The people who built the ancient monumental structures at Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe were fuelled by vat-fulls of starchy porridge and stew, not just meaty feasts. Archaeologists are uncovering evidence that ancient people were grinding grains for hearty, starchy dishes long before we domesticated crops. These discoveries shred the long-standing idea that early people subsisted mainly on meat. Discover more in this audio feature read by Nature’s Nick Petrić Howe.

Nature | 24 min listen

When our defences turn on us

When the body becomes the target of its own defensive arsenal, medicine must step in. This Nature Outlook explores why autoimmune disease is around three times more common in women than in men, the genetic variants that increase the risk of autoimmunity and how the microbes in our gut might sometimes be to blame. It also reveals how the possible links between long COVID and the immune system might finally prove that viruses can spark autoimmune disease.

Nature | Full collection

This Outlook is editorially independent and produced with financial support from The Global Autoimmune Institute.

In search of a unified theory of aromaticity

The concept of ‘aromaticity’ gets its name from the pungent benzene ring, which is found in many organic compounds. But, despite 200 years of research, there’s no single definition of the term or experiment that can identify it among all compounds. For some chemists, that fuzziness just doesn’t matter. “We’ve evolved past the stage of asking what aromaticity means,” says computational organic chemist Judy Wu. “Now is the time to ask the question ‘What do we use it for?’”

Chemistry World | 15 min read

Correspondence: your letters to Nature

What I learnt from a stint in charge

After six years as rector of the University of Rome Tor Vergata, medical genetics researcher Giuseppe Novelli headed back to the laboratory. “The administrative experience was a great help, not a hindrance,” he writes. “Back at the bench, I found myself more efficient and motivated, more keen to collaborate with scientists from different disciplines and more deft in negotiation with funders.”

Read more: Why become an academic administrator (Nature | 6 min read)

Cameroon: doubt could mean vaccine doses expire

“Working in Cameroon’s vaccine roll-out against COVID-19, we’ve seen a level of hesitancy that we fear could mean that many doses will expire before people can benefit from them,” write public-health physician Amani Adidja, epidemiologist Yap Boum and health-systems researcher Pierre Ongolo-Zogo. They call for urgent investment to counter misinformation in community-specific ways.

Pollution from hydrogen fuel could widen inequality

Hydrogen holds promise as a clean, low-carbon fuel — but it can generate toxic nitrogen oxides when it is burnt in engines and boilers rather than being used in fuel cells. Nitrogen-oxide emissions from hydrogen boilers will be concentrated in areas of high-density housing, which are often associated with low-income households, notes atmospheric scientist Alastair Lewis. Net-zero plans — including those in the United Kingdom’s sixth carbon budget — should include regulation and investment to ensure that boiler exhaust is treated for safety, he argues.

Correspondence is published every week in Nature. For more info on writing one yourself, please see the guidance on nature.com. (Your feedback on this newsletter is always welcome at briefing@nature.com, but won’t be considered for publication in Nature.)

Quote of the day

“It could end up looking more like the original telescope, or it could look completely different from anything that we've imagined so far.”

Planetary scientist Tracy Becker and other researchers with ties to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have authored a white paper on what might replace the destroyed telescope. (Space.com | 15 min read)

Read more: Gut-wrenching footage documents Arecibo telescope’s collapse (Nature | 4 min read, from December)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02071-y

Recently, we enjoyed a Twitter discussion of lab hacks — when researchers repurpose an everyday item (à la Isaac Newton’s shutters) to do science — and I asked to hear about yours. Molecular biologist Melissa Rogers pointed out the use of nonfat dried milk (or, less commonly but funnier, Irish Cream) as a blocking agent in western blotting. Materials scientist Robert Kasse says he and his SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory colleagues use champagne chillers to keep bottles of battery electrolyte from going bad. And geoscientist David Wilkins says that fingernail buffers reveal the ring structures in tree cores as effectively as industrial sanding film — and they’re cheaper.

I’d love to hear more of your lab hacks — particularly if you have a photo! They and any other feedback on this newsletter are always welcome at briefing@nature.com.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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