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Daily briefing: How to shore up Africa’s Great Green Wall

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A recently identified pulsar is hard to spot in this portion of the Large Magellanic Cloud under normal viewing conditions (sunglasses off). But the pulsar becomes clear in the polarized view (sunglasses on).(Yuanming Wang)

A ‘galaxy’ is unmasked as a pulsar

An object that astronomers thought was a distant galaxy is actually the brightest extra-galactic pulsar ever seen. Pulsars are among the few celestial objects that emit circular polarized light, so scientists used a computer program that works like sunglasses: it filters out other kinds of light. The team could then spot the ‘hidden’ pulsar. “We should expect to find more pulsars using this technique,” says radio astronomer and co-author Tara Murphy. “This is the first time we have been able to search for a pulsar’s polarization in a systematic and routine way.”

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: The Astrophysical Journal paper

Revisiting ‘gain-of-function’ guidance

Researchers and biosecurity specialists are calling on the US government to issue clearer guidance about experiments that it might fund to make pathogens more transmissible or deadly. They made these pleas during the first of a series of public listening sessions organized by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Manipulating viruses by, say, making them more transmissible in humans can help scientists to answer important questions about how a pathogen evolved or how to defeat it. But US policymakers have struggled to determine when the risk of creating a more dangerous pathogen outweighs the benefits of the research. The board plans to draft a report outlining its recommendations by the end of the year.

Nature | 6 min read

Vaccines could work better up the nose

Eight vaccines that fight COVID-19 on the front line of infection — in the nose — are in clinical development. Developers hope to give us more protection from infection by harnessing the mucosal immune system: disease-fighting cells that inhabit the mucus-rich lining of our airways and gut. But it is not easy to develop a safe and effective vaccine that takes this unfamiliar route into the body. “While the human immune system is a black box, the mucosal immune system is probably the blackest of the black boxes,” says epidemiologist Wayne Koff.

Scientific American | 6 min read

Opera therapy benefits long COVID

Opera-inspired breathing techniques have been found to improve breathlessness and mental well-being among people with long COVID. Researchers reported on the six-week online programme they developed with the English National Opera, which uses singing techniques and soothing lullabies. It is the first randomized controlled trial to evaluate an intervention for people with long COVID, say the study authors. Benefits came from “both practical breathing techniques learnt, but also the creative, humane, and positive way the programme is delivered”, says respiratory physician and co-author Keir Philip.

i news | 4 min read

Reference: The Lancet paper

Features & opinion

How to make AI fair

Starting in 2013, a Dutch government algorithm that flagged innocent families as welfare fraudsters pushed tens of thousands into poverty and caused more than 1,000 children to be placed in foster care. Regulations being brought in to stop such artificial intelligence (AI) scandals will not be enough to make it equitable, argues sociologist Mona Sloane. “There must be practical know-how on how to build AI so that it does not exacerbate social inequality,” she writes. “That means setting out clear ways for social scientists, affected communities and developers to work together.”

Nature | 5 min read

Balance research integrity with welfare

The fast-moving pandemic threw health researcher Laura McCosker’s clinical trial into chaos. While investigating vaccination strategies for people who are homeless, “the balance between participant welfare and research integrity became a major struggle for me”, she writes. She shares the strategies that helped her to navigate the challenges while keeping trial participants foremost in her decision-making.

Nature | 6 min read

Shore up Africa’s ‘Great Green Wall’

Africa’s Great Green Wall is one of the world’s most ambitious ecological projects: an 8,000-kilometre-long effort to restore degraded land, capture carbon dioxide and create jobs. Under pressure from the pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis, the dream is at risk of slipping away, argues a Nature editorial. It proposes improvements in funding, governance and assessment that are needed to ensure the wall achieves its bold goals

Nature | 5 min read

Infographic of the week

UNEXPLORED NUCLEI. Chart showing measured and observed isotopes against those that will be potentially produced by FRIB.

Source: Neufcourt, L. et al. Phys. Rev. C 101, 044307 (2020).

A long-anticipated accelerator in the United States is ready to go, five months early and on budget. The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) will chart unexplored regions of the landscape of exotic atomic nuclei and shed light on how stars and supernova explosions create most of the elements in the Universe. The system will smash atoms to create isotopes of all kinds — including the rarest ones, whose production rates might be as low as one nucleus a week. “This project has been the realization of a dream of the whole community in nuclear physics,” says experimental nuclear physicist Ani Aprahamian. (Nature | 7 min read)

See more of the week’s key infographics, selected by Nature’s news and art teams.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“Academics are part of a community who happen to work at a particular institution. Institutional affiliation is only a part of our identity.”

Work that contributes to the scientific community — such as reviewing, editing and writing letters of recommendation — must be factored into academics’ expanding workloads, argues biological psychologist and associate pro-vice-chancellor Marcus Munafò. (Research Professional News | 4 min read)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01247-4

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Thanks for reading,

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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