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Shaman of the Pataxó tribe, wearing feather headdress and smoking a pipe.

Pataxó people in Brazil speak Portuguese and a revitalized version of the Pataxó language, called Patxohã.Cristiano Babini/Alamy

Losing language means losing medicine

Threatened Indigenous languages convey unique knowledge of medicinal plants. Researchers analysed ethnobotanical datasets for North America, northwest Amazonia and New Guinea, which link more than 3,500 medicinal-plant species with 236 Indigenous languages. They found that 75% of the medicinal uses for these species are known in only one language. And those languages are the ones at greatest risk of being lost forever. “We found that those languages with unique knowledge are the ones at a higher risk of extinction,” says ecologist Jordi Bascompte. “There is a sort of a double-problem in terms of how knowledge will disappear.”

Mongabay | 7 min read

Reference: PNAS paper

How to understand the US pandemic now

Widespread vaccination will affect the immediate future of the pandemic in the United States — and it might diverge from what happens in other largely vaccinated countries. “The difference between the UK and the US isn’t just that fewer Americans are vaccinated. It’s that fewer of the most vulnerable Americans are vaccinated, and they tend to cluster together,” write three science writers in The Atlantic.

The Atlantic | 11 min read


The death toll of COVID-19 in the United States — overtaking the 1918 influenza pandemic as the deadliest disease event in US history. (STAT | 6 min read)

Features & opinion

Who is allowed to have physics’ wild ideas?

In Fear of a Black Universe, Black theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander asks: is the search for answers in modern physics hindered by an establishment that’s afraid to entertain the ideas of those it considers outsiders? An accomplished jazz musician, Alexander describes his narrative approach as an improvisation. It’s a dazzling, but challenging, approach for readers, writes reviewer Anil Ananthaswamy. For those who can keep up, the book makes a poignant case for why every scientist deserves equal opportunities to let their imagination soar.

Nature | 6 min read

‘Playing possum’ shows animals know death

The opossum’s death display, known as thanatosis, demonstrates that animals have some understanding of death, argues philosopher Susana Monsó. Not because opossums themselves necessarily have a concept of death, but because their predators must. “The distribution of thanatosis in the animal kingdom points to how extended the concept of death is likely to be in nature,” writes Monsó. “The concept of death should also be counted among those characteristics to which we can no longer resort to convince us of how very special we are.”

Aeon | 14 min read

An unsung pioneer of virology

During her lifetime, Marguerite Vogt did not receive a single major prize, but her work remains a gold standard in virology. Her painstaking, dangerous effort to grow the poliovirus in the laboratory was instrumental to the development of Albert Sabin’s oral polio vaccine. She was a musician and a mentor, but above all she was a scientist: at 14 she published her first paper, and her last at age 85.

Science News | 8 min read

News & views

Ebola can remain latent in human survivors

The genome of the Ebola virus that caused a 2021 outbreak in Guinea barely differs from that of the strain behind an epidemic nearly five years before, indicating that the virus remained dormant in survivors. “The unexpected observation that the virus can persist in the human body for such a long time has considerable implications for public health and care of survivors of Ebola,” writes virologist Robert Garry. Vaccines should be deployed strategically to ensure that the people most at risk of infection, such as health-care workers, are protected. Survivors, who face myriad personal and societal challenges, must not be further burdened with stigmatization on the basis of these findings. And researchers must determine whether vaccinating survivors can prevent the re-emergence of the disease.

Nature | 7 min read

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Reference: Nature paper

Figure 1

Figure 1 | A ‘molecular clock’ can give clues to the source of Ebola virus outbreaks. The Ebola virus genome accumulates mutations with a relatively regular frequency as it replicates and passes from host to host, representing a molecular clock that tracks the history of the virus. Keita et al. analysed the genomes of Ebola virus from the 2021 outbreak in Guinea, West Africa, and compared them with those of virus samples obtained during the 2013–16 West African outbreak. The virus showed accumulation of a much smaller number of mutations between the outbreaks than would be expected if it had continued replicating and being transmitted between hosts during this period. This suggests that the 2021 outbreak was triggered by reactivation of a latent infection in an individual who had survived the infection in the previous outbreak.