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Daily briefing: mRNA vaccines beyond COVID

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Parkes radio telescope photographed at night against the Milky Way illuminated by a red light

The 64-metre Parkes Murriyang telescope is one of the facilities involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.Credit: CSIRO/A. Cherney

'Alien beacon’ was useful false alarm

A radio signal detected by an Australian telescope in 2019, which seemed to be coming from the star closest to the Sun, was not from aliens. “It is human-made radio interference from some technology, probably on the surface of the Earth,” says astronomer Sofia Sheikh. Initially the disturbance, detected in the course of Breakthrough Listen — an ambitious and privately funded US$100-million effort in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — looked intriguing enough that it prompted an 11-month investigation into its origins. The experience puts scientists in a better position to study future candidates.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: Nature Astronomy papers S. Smith et al. & S. Z. Sheikh et al.

Ancient DNA points to origins of domestic horses

Archaeologists have used ancient DNA samples to identify the genetic homeland of modern horses, where the animals were first domesticated around 4,200 years ago. They found that modern domestic horses probably originated on the steppes around the Volga and Don rivers, now part of Russia, before spreading across Eurasia, ultimately replacing all pre-existing horse lineages. “This study has solved a massive mystery, and also fundamentally altered our view of some of the most significant human migrations in prehistory,” says bioarchaeologist Alan Outram.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Brazil’s scientists reel from funding backtrack

The Brazilian science community is aghast after President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill sending 600 million reais (US$106.3 million) earmarked for the country’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to several other government departments. The promise of the money earlier in the year had triggered Brazil’s main science-funding agency to initiate a call for research-grant applications. Now, the 8,000 submitted proposals face an uncertain future. “The whole situation is depressing,” says computer scientist Patricia Endo. “If it were not for my family, I would have left the country already.”

Nature | 5 min read

Features & opinion

mRNA vaccines beyond COVID-19

Vaccines based on messenger RNA (mRNA) were in development long before the SARS-CoV-2 virus began infecting people, but the pandemic has hugely accelerated the process. The success of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines — including those made by Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna — offers hints that the same approach could provide protection against other diseases, such as malaria, rabies and influenza. “The COVID-19 pandemic could prove to be the great accelerator of vaccine technology, rather like nuclear power after World War Two,” says infectious-diseases consultant Christopher Green.

Chemistry World | 13 min read

Inside the legal battle to decide who owns your DNA

In 2009, lawyer Chirs Hansen embarked on a lawsuit that ended gene patenting in the United States. The effort seemed doomed, yet Hansen went on to win at the US Supreme Court, challenging the very idea of what patents are and what they should do. The unexpected twists and turns of that case — as well as its impact on medicine, and particularly on the lives of women affected by breast and ovarian cancer — are detailed in Jorge L. Contreras’s book The Genome Defense. The story stands as a guide to the forces that shape the “increasingly important” genetic-testing industry, writes reviewer Heidi Ledford.

Nature | 6 min read

Where I work

Portrait of Sofia Qvarfort, quantum physicist working on optomechanics and gravity sensing in her office at UCL.

Sofia Qvafort is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Research Fellow at Stockholm University and a Wallenberg Initiative on Networks and Quantum Information Research Fellow at Nordita, Stockholm.Credit: Agnese Abrusci/Nature

Many people would struggle to make sense of the scribbled equations on this chalkboard. But as someone with albinism, a genetic condition that impairs vision, theoretical-physicist Sofia Qvafort faces particular challenges. Qvafort started VIP@Uni, a website that offers tips and resources for visually impaired people in academia. “If you’re passionate about something, you find ways around the obstacles,” she says. (Nature | 3 min read)

Quote of the day

“Politicians who are not trained in science should not meddle in our day-to-day business, or tell scientists what’s right or wrong.”

Incoming European Research Council president Maria Leptin, speaks about her plans for the ERC, its role in European science and its significance for early-career researchers. (Nature | 6 min read)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02945-1

On Friday, Leif Penguinson explored the Rockery at Chatsworth House in the United Kingdom. Did you find the penguin? When you’re ready, here’s the answer.

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Emma Stoye, senior news editor, Nature

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