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A group of people pictured beneath a sky illuminated by the aurora borealis on May 10, 2024 in Whitley Bay, England.

People in Whitley Bay, UK, on 10 May snap photos of the aurora borealis, which became visible at lower latitudes than usual owing to a massive solar storm.Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty

More solar storms are coming

Dramatic auroras seen at unusually low latitudes over the weekend were caused by a cluster of sunspots, around 17 times as wide as Earth, that sent at least seven blasts of magnetized plasma towards our atmosphere. The current storm is ‘extreme’ in scale and capable of knocking out satellite communications and power grids. Despite some disruption of the internet provided by the Starlink satellites, most systems seemed to weather the storm. Expect more and bigger storms to come, say scientists — the most intense onescan occur after the solar maximum, which is expected later in 2024.

Nature | 6 min read

How embryos embrace asymmetry

The two cells that make up a one-day old embryo make dramatically different contributions to a human body. This is contrary to the idea that embryonic cells don’t specialise until later in development. Studies with mice, and now with human embryos, have shown that one of the first two cells develops to become most of the mammalian body, whereas the other mainly forms the yolk sac. The cell that divides faster seems to form the body, but it’s not clear why this preference develops. The finding could eventually improve screening for in vitro fertilization to select embryos more likely to develop into a fetus and lead to successful pregnancies.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Cell paper

Brain-reader decodes ‘internal speech’

A brain-computer interface device is the first to decode words entirely from neuronal recordings, without the aid of spoken or mimed speech. The system used arrays of tiny electrodes implanted in the brains of two people with spinal-cord injuries. It decoded one participant’s imagined speech with 79% accuracy and the other’s with 23% accuracy. Some neurons were active only during internal speech and not when the person spoke aloud, suggesting the brain processes imagined speech differently. Clinical applications are still a long way off. “The problem with internal speech is we don’t know what’s happening and how is it processed,” says computational neuroscientist Christian Herff.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Nature Human Behaviour paper

Features & opinion

How does ChatGPT ‘think’?

Researchers are borrowing approaches from psychology and neuroscience to crack open the ‘black box’ of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. “The nice thing about artificial neural networks is that we can do experiments that neuroscientists would only dream of,” says computer scientist David Bau. “We can look at every single neuron, we can run networks millions of times, we can do all sorts of crazy measurements and interventions and abuse these things. And we don’t have to get a consent form.” Others treat AI models like human subjects and ask them to explain their reasoning. “It is nonsensical to say that a [large language model] has feelings,” says computer scientist Thilo Hagendorff. “It is nonsensical to say that it is self-aware or that it has intentions. But I don’t think it is nonsensical to say that these machines are able to learn or to deceive.”

Nature | 13 min read

How to get oil refineries to net zero

It is possible to decarbonize the workhorse of fossil fuel production and still provide humanity with the materials it craves, write chemists Eelco Vogt and Bert Weckhuysen. They propose developing refineries that can make chemicals and materials from biomass and recycled plastic, and synthetic fuels from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, instead of from crude oil. This ‘refinery of the future’ should be able to hit net zero emissions by 2050 if we take action soon, the authors write. They acknowledge that the cost and scale of such a rapid transition are “staggering”. But a Nature editorial argues that “their vision deserves attention. Industry leaders and policymakers need to take it seriously”.

Nature Perspective | 46 min read & Nature editorial | 5 min read

The evolution of HIV treatments

From single antivirals like AZT, to combination therapies with multiple enzyme inhibitors, treatments for HIV have given people the power to control the virus and symptoms. “We went from 15 or 20 pills in the mid-90s to taking one pill three times a day,” says chemist Dennis Liotta. But antivirals don’t offer a cure. The problem is that HIV can enter cells, where it lurks in a person’s DNA. Once treatment stops, the virus rebounds.

A handful of people have been cured with the help of a bone-marrow transplant, or are ‘elite controllers’ who somehow eradicate HIV naturally. For others, one hope for a cure is to use CRISPR to cut the HIV DNA out of a persons’ cells, though early results from a small clinical trial are disappointing. “The problem with HIV is that you need to ensure that you get rid of every infected cell,” says HIV researcher Rafick-Pierre Sekaly.

Chemistry World | 9 min read & STAT | 5 min read (paywall)


“He was clearly sort of in awe of her. He saw how, even in her diminished state, she was able to be in control of her own treatment and death.”

Jesse Furman, son-in-law to Nancy Neveloff Dubler, recalls the doctor who was at her bedside in the months before her death. As an early bioethics pioneer, Dubler helped families take charge of their own life-and-death decisions. Dubler has died, aged 82. (The New York Times | 7 min read)