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A green freshwater sponge (Spongilla lacustris) under water in The Netherlands.

This freshwater sponge (Spongilla lacustris) may hold clues about the evolution of the nervous system.Credit: Willem Kolvoort/Nature Picture Library

Sponges hint at origins of nervous system

Sponges are expert filter feeders, straining tens of thousands of litres of water through their bodies every day to collect their food. And they do this without a brain, or a single neuron, to their name. Now, researchers have sequenced the RNA in various individual cells from a freshwater sponge (Spongilla lacustris) and found that sponges use an intricate cell communication system to regulate their feeding and to potentially weed out invading bacteria. The findings could help to understand how animals’ nervous systems evolved, but some scientists say that calling these cells a precursor to a nervous system is a stretch.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Science paper

Promising news for Pfizer’s COVID pill

An antiviral pill called Paxlovid has been shown to cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% for vulnerable people newly diagnosed with COVID-19, says its maker, Pfizer. Interim data, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, were collected from more than 1,200 people with COVID-19 who were at high risk of progressing to severe illness. The innovative treatment inhibits an enzyme known as the main protease (Mpro) that is integral to coronavirus replication. This is combined with ritonavir, an HIV drug, which helps to slow the breakdown of the protease inhibitor.

The news follows the approval in the United Kingdom last week of another antiviral pill, called molnupiravir, made by Merck (called MSD outside the United States and Canada) and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

The New York Times | 6 min read

Read more: The race for antiviral drugs to beat COVID — and the next pandemic (Nature | 12 min read, from April)

Reference: Pfizer press release


COP26: what scientists think so far

The first week of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) surprised many long-time COP-watchers: it started with a bang. Many big names made big announcements, in contrast to previous years, in which the highest-profile figures arrived near the end of the meeting to make an agreed statement. This time, the promises came thick, fast and early.

• An international agreement to curb emissions of methane, led by the United States and the European Union, and bolstered by new methane rules in the United States. “It’s a good start,” says climate scientist Tim Lenton. “It’s an additional lever that could really help us limit warming.”

• A pledge by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his country would seek to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. “We are definitely taken by surprise: this is much more than we were expecting to hear,” says economist Ulka Kelkar.

• A plan by financial companies to move US$130 trillion of funds into investments whose recipients are committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 (although they are free to continue investing in fossil fuels). Governments also announced new investments in clean technologies and some new commitments to phasing out coal power. “All of this is significant,” says ecologist Cristián Samper. “The involvement of the financial sector and of ministers of finance and energy” in the meeting “is a game-changer”.

• Countries that are home to 90% of the world’s forests pledged to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. Researchers say the latest target, like similar recent ones, is unlikely to be met without an enforcement mechanism.

• A group of high-income countries has pledged US$12 billion in public funding for forest protection between 2021 and 2025, but has not specified how the money will be provided. Observers say they’re just happy to see biodiversity getting noticed, because biodiversity and climate are treated as separate challenges by the United Nations. “We’ve never seen this much attention,” says Samper. “It could be a pivot point.”

Nature | 7 min read


The number of delegates at COP26 associated with the fossil-fuel industry — more than the number of delegates from any single country. (BBC | 4 min read)

Cleaning up climate disasters is dirty work

Increasingly extreme weather is begetting a growing labour force that takes on arduous, poorly regulated work for big disaster-recovery firms. Environmental engineer Bellaliz Gonzalez ran several national parks in Venezuela, but has taken on tasks such as cleaning floodwater from a morgue as an asylum-seeker in the United States. She has become a leader for migrant workers who help communities to rebuild from climate disasters, but often face exploitation and abuse themselves.

The New Yorker | 36 min read

Today at COP26

Today, all eyes were on former US president Barack Obama as he took to the stage at COP26. Metres away from where Obama harkened back to his childhood in Hawaii, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama noted that the United States has been notably delinquent in helping island nations to adapt and survive.

Obama brings star power, but the meat of the conference this week will take place away from the spotlight as negotiators grapple with the nitty-gritty of creating a global carbon market and paying for the ravages of rising temperatures.

“A long and painful week” lies ahead for ministers tasked with deciding what actions will back up the big promises made last week, says Nature journalist Ehsan Masood. “It’s time to negotiate some of these minefields,” agrees Nature journalist Jeff Tollefson. “There will be fires and explosions in discussions before the week’s out.”

If you’re in Glasgow, you could take a break at our informal in-person event for Briefing readers on Wednesday. This event is free, but please register in advance because places are limited.

Read the whole Nature COP26 collection (continually updated)

Notable quotable

Tool brings online seminars onto the record

A new online tool formally launched last month, Cassyni, aims to make academic seminars more discoverable. Organizers can use the software to plan events and Cassyni assigns each research seminar a digital object identifier (DOI), which is typically associated with academic papers. “The idea is that they are registered as a proper part of the academic discussion and academic output,” says co-founder Peter Vincent.

Nature | 4 min read

Where I work

Kendrew Colhoun carrying a large net over his shoulder walks along the cliff edge of an island with a lighthouse in the distance

Kendrew Colhoun is a seabird biologist with MarPAMM (Marine Protected Area Management and Monitoring), funded by the European Union.Credit: Chris Maddaloni for Nature

“Netting seabirds is great fun,” says seabird biologist Kendrew Colhoun. “And it’s crucial for science and conservation… The birds don’t enjoy getting caught, but the stress is only temporary.” In this photo, Colhoun goes out in search of fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) on Inishtrahull, Ireland’s northernmost island. The fulmars are experiencing a population crash, which Colhoun is investigating by banding birds and fitting them with a light-level geolocator — a sensor that helps to estimate location from day length. “A few birds get GPS monitors, but we dole those out carefully, because each costs about £1,000,” he says. (Nature | 3 min read)

Quote of the day

“I always had this dream: gee, someday I would like to become a physicist.”

Retired physician Manfred Steiner achieved his aspiration of earning a PhD in physics at the age of 89. (NPR | 4 min read)