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Daily briefing: First ever DNA vaccine authorized for COVID-19 in India

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Aerial view of a small island surrounded by partially melted ice with a helicopter on it.

Credit: Julian Charrière/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

The month’s best science images

Shifting pack ice has uncovered what is thought to be the world’s most northerly island, off the coast of Greenland. Scientists discovered the patch of land while on an expedition to collect samples on a different island, called Oodaaq. The new island measures 30 metres across and has a peak about 3 metres above sea level. The team wants it to be named Qeqertaq Avannarleq, which means ‘the northernmost island’ in Greenlandic.

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

Nature | Leisurely scroll

India’s DNA COVID vaccine is a world first

India has given emergency use authorization to a COVID-19 vaccine that uses circular strands of DNA, called plasmids, to prime the immune system against SARS-CoV-2. ZyCoV-D, developed by Indian pharmaceutical firm Zydus Cadila, is the first DNA vaccine for humans to receive authorization anywhere in the world. It is also administered in an unusual way: it is pushed through the skin without a needle or an injection. Interim results showed that ZyCoV-D is 67% protective against symptomatic COVID-19, but no late-stage trial results have yet been published.

Nature | 7 min read

Leaded petrol is gone for good

A century after its invention, leaded petrol has finally been banned worldwide. In July, Algeria became the last country on Earth to stop the legal sale of leaded petrol, and the United Nations Environment Programme declared the “era of leaded petrol over”. The fuel has been linked to a host of health problems, including heart disease, cancers and impared cognitive development. Sadly its toxic legacy lives on: almost half of the lead in London’s air comes from leaded petrol that’s still hanging around in dust, more than 20 years after it was banned in the United Kingdom.

Chemistry World | 4 min read

Features & opinion

Witness for the climate-change prosecution

A timely book by environmental lawyer James Gustave Speth began as an expert report in a landmark climate-change case brought by young people: Juliana et al. v. US Government. In They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, Speth gives a clear and concise account of the scientific evidence available to successive US lawmakers over five decades. Drawing on a career that included a spell as an adviser to president Jimmy Carter, Speth provides “a chilling description of the gulf between the safer course of action recommended by scientists and advisers, and the reality of federal policy”, writes reviewer and climate-litigation scholar Catherine Higham.

Nature | 5 min read

A billion years missing from Earth’s history

A period of one billion years is missing from the geological record — and researchers are trying to work out where it went. First spotted in 1869 in the stratified layers of the Grand Canyon, ‘The Great Unconformity’ exists all over the world. In the Grand Canyon, the gap occurs between a layer of reddish sandstone now dated to 550 million years old, and the youngest of the crystalline rocks immediately beneath it, which are 1.7 billion years old. The period precedes a sudden proliferation of life on Earth, known as the Cambrian explosion, which makes it particularly mouthwatering for geologists. Theories for the cause of the disparity abound: it might have been caused by abrasive worldwide glaciers during a period of ‘snowball Earth’, or by erosion after the break-up of the supercontinent Rodinia.

BBC Future | 20 min read

Futures: science fiction from Nature

In this week’s collection of short stories for Nature’s Futures series:

• Fading knowledge on a generation ship leads to grief for the protagonist of Some dogs kick when they dream.

• Temptation trumps scientific ethics in How to straighten a zebra.

Podcast: Insects manage deadwood carbon

A huge field experiment across 55 forest sites and 6 continents reveals the important role of insects in the decomposition of deadwood and the carbon cycle. Dead trees naturally release more carbon every year than humans emit through burning fossil fuels. Researchers estimate that insects account for almost one-third of the carbon flux from deadwood — and, surprisingly, some insects can actually reduce the amount of carbon that goes back into the atmosphere. “The interesting thing is that a number of insects bring their own fungi to the wood, and they are like farmers,” says ecologist Jörg Müller. “These mushrooms outcompete the principle decomposer of deadwood, so that you slow down the decomposition process.”

Nature Podcast | 30 min listen

Reference: Nature paper

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Today Leif Penguinson is exploring the spectacular Sanetti Plateau in Ethiopia, home to ecological riches including the entire global population of the giant mole rat (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus) and the largest remaining natural stand of wild coffee genetic stock. Can you find the penguin?

The answer will be in Monday’s e-mail, all thanks to Briefing photo editor and penguin wrangler Tom Houghton.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty and John Pickrell

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