Hello Nature readers, would you like to get this Briefing in your inbox free every day? Sign up here.
The Borg have landed — or, at least, researchers have discovered their counterparts here on Earth. Scientists analysed samples from muddy sites in the western United States and found DNA structures that seem to scavenge and ‘assimilate’ genes from microorganisms in their environment, much like the fictional Star Trek ‘Borg’ aliens who assimilate the knowledge and technology of other species. These extra-long DNA strands, which the scientists named in honour of the aliens, join a diverse collection of genetic structures — circular plasmids, for example — known as extrachromosomal elements.
The US government has appointed a new director to lead the nation’s next major climate assessment: Allison Crimmins, who has worked on climate issues for the past decade at the US Environmental Protection Agency. She will work with environmental toxicologist Mike Kuperberg, who in May was restored as head of the US Global Change Research Program, which coordinates climate activities across 13 federal agencies. By law, the United States must produce its influential assessment of the latest climate science every four years. The finalized roster marks the end of a turbulent period for the government’s climate team. “We’re behind, and we need to get to work,” says climate scientist Donald Wuebbles.
Astronomers are working to see whether the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space might take up the topic of satellite ‘megaconstellations’ at its next meeting, which begins on 25 August. They say the goal is not to pit astronomers — who are worried about how satellites will interfere with their observations of the sky — against satellite companies, but to develop a vision of how to fairly use the shared realm of outer space. Aerospace companies have launched about 2,000 Internet satellites into orbit around Earth over the past 2 years, with tens of thousands more expected.
Today, England is facing what has been dubbed ‘freedom day’ — the end of nearly all measures for mitigating the spread of COVID–19. Around 68% of the adult population is fully vaccinated, and that progress has weakened the link between infections and hospitalizations or deaths. But the United Kingdom’s infection rate, driven by the rise of the Delta variant, is among the highest in the world — almost 40,000 new cases per day. Nature’s Coronapod explores an unprecedented public-health experiment that could provide the perfect breeding ground for vaccine-resistant variants.
Features & opinion
Physicist Ettore Majorana notoriously disappeared in 1938 without a trace. His favourite elementary particles, neutrinos, might be capable of a similar vanishing act. Several new or upgraded experiments around the world are racing to show that an extremely rare kind of nuclear decay that normally produces two neutrinos might occasionally yield none. Physicists have looked for these disappearing ‘Majorana neutrinos’ for decades, but they now “have a really good shot” at detecting them with the next generation of devices, says experimental physicist Michelle Dolinski. Experiments that are now online or are being built in Japan, South Korea, Italy, Canada and the United States are an order of magnitude more sensitive than the previous generation, and planned future detectors would improve on that by another two orders of magnitude.
In 2018, the detection of rogue emissions of banned ozone-depleting chemicals shocked scientists. The discovery relied on a lucky coincidence, write atmospheric chemists Ray Weiss, A. R. Ravishankara and Paul Newman. “The emissions came from regions upwind of monitoring stations that collect data frequently,” they note. “It is unlikely that this will be the case next time.” They outline how the world can take a systematic, coordinated approach to monitoring gases that destroy the ozone layer and cause climate change.
Deaf scientists are developing conceptually accurate American Sign Language (ASL) signs for scientific terms. So, for example, one ASL sign for ‘electron’ — a single finger wiggling in the air — is updated to represent an electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom: a finger encircling a closed fist. There can even be multiple signs for the same concept: three signs for ‘molecule’ are based on large biomolecules such as proteins, another symbolizes an atomic grouping as analysed in physics, and a fifth suggests molecules undergoing a chemical reaction. As with any language, ultimately the ASL-speaking community will decide the signs that become established in regular use.