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Illustration that shows the mRNA code used in the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine, with a syringe containing a lipid nanoparticle.

The RNA sequence used in the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech (Ψ is a modified form of the uridine nucleotide, U).Credit: Nik Spencer/Nature

The tangled history of mRNA vaccines

The messenger-RNA (mRNA) vaccines against COVID-19 are among the most important and profitable in history, and have been given to hundreds of millions of people around the world. But the route to success was not direct. Scientists had worked on mRNA vaccines for decades before the coronavirus pandemic brought a breakthrough. The story illuminates the twisting path that many scientific discoveries take on the way to becoming life-changing innovations: decades of dead ends, rejections and battles over potential profits, but also generosity, curiosity and dogged persistence against scepticism and doubt.

Nature | 20 min read

Inside an mRNA COVID vaccine: infographic that shows the innovations used in the mRNA and nanoparticle of the vaccine.

Nik Spencer/Nature; Adapted from M. D. Buschmann et al. Vaccines 9, 65 (2021)

Gender gap in major research awards

Women’s share of international prizes rewarding research excellence is increasing, but still lags behind the proportion of professorial positions held by women. Researchers analysed 141 top science prizes awarded over the past two decades to determine whether gains in professorships for women have translated into awards honouring their work. The findings show a narrowing but persistent gender gap in the highest tiers of awards, with the greatest disparity in disciplines including life sciences, computer science and mathematics. Hans Petter Graver, president of the Norwegian academy that administers the Abel and Kavli prizes, says the results send “a signal to institutions awarding prestigious science prizes to do more for diversity”.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Quantitative Science Studies paper

Swedish misconduct agency swamped

Scientists have inundated Sweden’s new national research-misconduct investigation agency with cases. The National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (NPOF) is among the world’s first national bodies set up to deal with misconduct allegations. Typically, those cases are handled in-house by universities and research institutions. Researchers brought 46 cases to NPOF in its first year — three times higher than officials were expecting.

Nature | 5 min read

Cows learn to use the loo

A herd of calves has been successfully trained to pee in a designated location. Researchers rewarded the calves with sweet treats when they used their latrine, and sprayed them with water from lawn sprinklers when they didn’t. In weeks, 10 of the 16 cows had been potty-trained. Collecting the excreta of cattle could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and soil and water contamination while still allowing cows to roam freely. “Cattle, like many other animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot,” says animal psychologist and study co-author Jan Langbein. “Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?”

The Guardian | 4 min read

Reference: Current Biology paper

Skipper’s Picks: notes from the editor-in-chief

The United Nations (UN) has not explicitly invited science leaders to join the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, which starts this week. Given the UN’s recognition of the part that science plays in achieving the sustainable development goals, it is a puzzling decision. The General Assembly is the UN’s means of bringing together world leaders, civil-society champions, young people and global businesses around the need to solve common problems. If we are serious about science advice, science should not be confined to satellite or domain-specific events. The UN needs to take the next step and place the science agenda front and centre on the UN General Assembly agenda. Meanwhile, this year science will be discussed in its own Science Summit, held in parallel to the main event. Let us hope next year it will be different.

Magdalena Skipper, Nature editor-in-chief

Features & opinion

Biochemistry without boundaries

Biochemist Edmond Fischer discovered the first example of reversible protein phosphorylation, a process that regulates most aspects of cell life. This fundamental discovery earned Fischer and his collaborator Edwin Krebs the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1992. In the course of his long life, Fischer, who has died aged 101, witnessed his discovery being applied in ways that have saved millions of lives. “It was important to him that science should always be fun,” writes enzymologist Philip Cohen, who collaborated with Fischer. “He treated his researchers as if they were his family, meeting new arrivals at the airport, and insisting that they stay at his house until they had found an apartment.”

Nature | 5 min read

How to have preprints without harm

“The case for releasing preprints is clear,” argues research-integrity and epidemiology researcher Gowri Gopalakrishna. “But efforts to promote preprints without simultaneously implementing firm measures to ensure that the research is of high quality put the cart before the horse.” Looking at the proliferation of preprints on COVID-19, Gopalakrishna suggests six ways to minimize the transfer of harmful or low-quality information to the public sphere.

Nature | 6 min read

The Chair in the hot seat

Academics reeling from the experience of watching The Chair might enjoy a chat between co-creator (and former adjunct professor) Annie Julia Wyman and Los Angeles Review of Books senior editor (and assistant professor) Sarah Chihaya. Wyman discusses her worries that young people wouldn’t want to watch a programme about “professors unraveling” and how she went from “a really discouraged and unhappy graduate student” to co-creating a hit show on Netflix.

Los Angeles Review of Books | 38 min read

Where I work

Moexa Martin-Gardiner, a plant breeder in Barbados, uses equipment to chip sugar cane stalk samples for testing.

Morexa Martin-Gardiner is principal plant breeder for the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station in Sweet Vale, Barbados.Credit: Micah B. Rubin for Nature

Quote of the day

“We want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at –40 °C, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do, in particular knocking down trees.”

Geneticist George Church has kicked off a US$15-million project to nurture a herd of elephant–mammoth hybrids in artificial wombs and release them onto the Arctic tundra to help maintain the permafrost. (The Guardian | 6 min read)