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Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of resting T lymphocytes from a human blood sample.

T cells (seen in this scanning electron microscope image) from people who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 can recognize and target the Omicron variant.Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/SPL

‘Killer’ T cells still recognize Omicron

Evidence is building that specialized immune cells called T cells can recognize variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including Omicron, even when antibodies can’t. In people who have been infected or vaccinated, neutralizing antibodies bind to a handful of regions on the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. When those sites mutate, antibodies can’t recognize the virus, and protection fades. T cells, however, are more resilient. By killing infected cells, T cells can limit the spread of infection — and potentially reduce the chance of serious illness. The findings raise the question of whether researchers assessing the potential efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines should look at T-cell responses, and not just the levels of antibodies they trigger.

Nature | 5 min read

14 zettajoules

The amount by which the heat in the oceans increased last year — breaking the previous year’s record for the third year in a row. (Scientific American/E&E News | 4 min read)

Reference: Advances in Atmospheric Sciences paper

Bringing Colombian bird knowledge home

Researchers in Colombia are redoing a legendary bird survey done more than a century ago by pioneering US ornithologist Frank Chapman. They are surveying the areas that Chapman catalogued between 1911 and 1915, to investigate how a century of war, global warming and industrialization has affected one of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world. But this project will not snatch birds and whisk them to a museum abroad, as Chapman’s team did. Instead, local scientists will keep specimens in Colombia and engage with local communities during their expeditions, to include them in the momentous endeavour, improve the quality of the research and set an ethical standard for future fieldwork.

Nature | 7 min read

How to protect US government science

A long-awaited US report recommends ways to strengthen scientific integrity and preserve public trust in government. The report says that US federal agencies need to strengthen the policies that protect science used in government decision-making. They should also create a scientific-integrity council spanning many agencies, to help address political meddling by government officials. The question now is whether federal agencies can strengthen their scientific-integrity policies to be truly effective against challenges such as those that arose during the administration of former president Donald Trump. “By elevating the importance of this issue...it is our hope that we can minimize the likelihood of future violations,” says environmental scientist Jane Lubchenco, who was one of the leaders of the cross-agency task force that generated the report.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: White House Office of Science and Technology Policy report

Tasmanian devil ‘breaks laws of scavenging’

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is the only scavenger in the world known to be a picky eater. Animals that eat carcasses are typically generalists that will snack on whatever they find, but when researchers looked at the stable isotopes in the whiskers of 71 wild devils, they found that most had strong food preferences. “Some are choosing to eat things like pademelons and wallabies, others are choosing to take birds, eggs or other types of prey,” says ecologist Tracey Rogers, the study’s senior author. “Basically, it’s because they can,” says Rogers. “If you’re a scavenger in Africa, then you’re competing with all these other predators for food. But in Tasmania, there aren’t other predators around or competition for carcasses. Their main competition is just with each other.”

Cosmos | 6 min read

Reference: Ecology and Evolution paper

Features & opinion

A teacher wearing a bright pink biosafety suit and face shield teaches numbers to a young girl at home

A teacher in a biosecurity suit gives a lesson to a girl in her home in Cali, Colombia.Credit: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty

The COVID generation

Child-development researchers are raising the alarm that some babies born during the COVID-19 pandemic might be experiencing cognitive and motor deficits. Contributing factors could include stressed-out parents, reduced interactions with peers and less gross motor practice because they aren’t playing as much with other children or at playgrounds. (Early evidence seems to show that carers wearing face masks doesn’t interfere with children’s emotional or language perception.) Children of colour and those from low-income families seem to be at increased risk.

Many of the relevant studies have not yet been peer reviewed, and researchers emphasize that more work is needed to build a clearer picture. Still, swift action could help to stave off long-term effects. Policies that support families and children could reduce stress during pregnancy and beyond. And parents can make headway by playing and talking with their young children regularly, and seeking safe opportunities for them to play with others.

Nature | 14 min read

Reference: medRxiv preprint and 16 more references — a full list can be found at the end of the article.

Weaving Indigenous knowledge into science

Three researchers who belong to Indigenous communities in the Americas and New Zealand, plus two funders who work closely with Alaskan Natives, discuss how far we’ve come toward decolonizing science — and how researchers can work more respectfully with Indigenous groups. “Researchers should build in time to spend in the community to listen, be humbled and learn,” says Dominique David-Chavez, who researches Indigenous land and data stewardship. Ecologist Mary Turnipseed, who awards grants for a US foundation, notes that this essential preliminary work requires financial support. “One way in which we help to spur productive relationships is by giving research teams a year of preliminary funding — before they even start their research — so that they can work with Indigenous groups to identify the questions their research will address and decide how they’re going to tackle them,” she says. “We really need more funding agencies to set aside money for this type of early relationship-building,” she says.

Nature | 11 min read

Scientist moms form climate supergroup

A group of scientists, who are also mothers, have come together to demystify climate change for others who want to secure a livable world for future generations. The ‘Science Moms’ include high-profile evangelical climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and a diverse, non-partisan group of women including oceanographer Joellen Russell. Their goal: to forge connections with non-scientists over shared values, to quash the hostility to motherhood that still exists in some corners of science — and to help save the world. “It turns out that my students and my community members and my kids’ classroom teachers and all the rest of them were waiting for me to shake off the shackles of ‘just the science’ and talk to them about the values part,” says Russell. “And I am thrilled.”

The Christian Science Monitor | 14 min read