Hello Nature readers, would you like to get this Briefing in your inbox free every day? Sign up here.

A pregnant woman receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

A pregnant woman in Bogotá, Colombia, receives a COVID-19 jab in July.Credit: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty

During pregnancy, vaccines are the safe choice

The science is clear: the risks of COVID-19 during pregnancy are far greater than those of being vaccinated. Data from nearly 870,000 women who gave birth in the United States show that those diagnosed with COVID-19 were 15 times more likely to die and 14 times more likely to be intubated than were those without a COVID-19 diagnosis. They were also up to 22 times more likely to give birth prematurely. And vaccination is safe during pregnancy. The risk of adverse birth outcomes — such as miscarriage, premature birth and congenital disabilities — is the same regardless of vaccination status. The evidence is good news for those people who haven’t gotten vaccinated because of pregnancy.

Nature | 8 min read

Reference: JAMA Network Open paper, The New England Journal of Medicine paper & 10 more references — a full list can be found at the end of the article.

A mysterious new way of producing oxygen

Researchers have discovered that some microbes that live in the deep sea produce oxygen in a way never seen before. The surprising species, Nitrosopumilus maritimus, uses a common method to generate energy: the oxidation of ammonia to nitrite. But when researchers sealed the microbes in airtight containers, without light or oxygen, they were still somehow able to produce O2. The findings could have implications for everything from detecting the signs of life to determining how bacteria might adapt to a drop in ocean oxygen caused by climate change.

Chemistry World | 4 min read

Reference: Science paper

Nature Methods method of the year

Nature Methods has named protein structure prediction as its ‘method of the year’ for 2021. The impact of deep learning has sent shock waves through the structural-biology community, with tools such as AlphaFold doing in milliseconds what takes hours or days with older techniques.

Nature Methods | 21 min read

Read more: DeepMind’s AI for protein structure is coming to the masses (Nature | 4 min read, from July)

Features & opinion

First comes fire. Then comes mud.

Regions that never used to burn are now suffering from forest fires — and that raises the risks of dangerous mudslides that are hard to forecast. Last summer, record heat fuelled British Columbia’s worst-ever wildfires. By November, that turned to record-breaking rain. When the downpour hit the burnt, scarred hillsides, it set off giant surges of mud and debris that swept across roads and railway lines, severing the province’s key connections to the rest of Canada. This one-two punch of fire and flood is just a taste of what’s to come in the Pacific Northwest and many other regions, say scientists. “Right now, we are scrambling to collect data to figure out how well our current model works and how to make a better one,” says hydrologist Jason Kean.

Nature | 11 min read

Start-ups to plug research support gaps

Six researchers and science administrators argue for creating a new kind of research institute to fill gaps in the current landscape. These ‘focused research organizations’ (FROs) would tackle finite, mid-scale projects to produce public tools, data sets or platforms to support and accelerate research. Neither US academia nor US industry is suited to building this type of connective infrastructure, the authors argue. The authors’ incubator, Convergent Research in Arlington, Massachusetts, has launched three FROs so far, on high-throughput brain mapping, microorganism engineering tools, and analysis of ageing research in mice.

Nature | 10 min read

When life got loud

The fossil record is revealing the first creatures that could hear and make noises. These include a 250-million-year-old insect that has the earliest known structures capable of producing sounds: drum-like membranes called tymbals, which can be contracted and relaxed to generate exceptionally loud clicks. “Many details remain to be worked out, but we can now begin to piece together the dawn of the din” writes palaeontologist Michael Habib.

Scientific American | 20 min read

Quote of the day

“We want to take whatever time is necessary to ensure these pebbles exit in a controlled and orderly fashion.”

The Perseverance rover’s sample-collecting mechanism is jammed with a bit of Mars, and mission scientists will take their time to get it unstuck, says NASA engineer Louise Jandura. (Scientific American | 4 min read)