Daily briefing: How the divisive ‘lab leak’ debate is hurting science


Daily briefing: How the divisive ‘lab leak’ debate is hurting science

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Light micrograph of a human morula embryo three to four days after fertilisation

Scientific advances have made it possible to grow human embryos in the lab for weeks.Credit: Lennart Nilsson, TT/Science Photo Library

End of 14-day rule for lab-grown embryos

The international body representing stem-cell scientists has torn up a decades-old limit on the length of time that scientists can grow human embryos in the laboratory. The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) is relaxing its ‘14-day rule’ and now suggests that studies be considered on a case-by-case basis. The move gives more leeway to researchers who are studying human development and disease. The ISSCR has also updated its ethics guide to address mitochondrial-replacement therapy — which can lead to ‘three-parent babies’ — and weighs in against heritable gene editing, for now.

Nature | 7 min read

Traffickers trawl journals for new species

Exotic-animal traders systematically review the scientific literature to target newly described and rediscovered reptile species. Researchers analysed the online reptile trade and found that some species are being sold within months of their first mention in a paper. The horror of seeing a gecko species he first described in 2013 quickly appear in online trade made taxonomist Yang Jianhuan decide to not publish the exact location of his latest find. “The colleagues of the older generation said I must publish. They say the tradition cannot be broken,” says Yang. “I really understand both sides, but some scientists just have not yet realized that this problem is now very big.”

Mongabay | 9 min read

Reference: Nature Communications paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Micrograph of a human intestinal organoid infected with SARS-CoV-2

Human gut organoids infected with SARS-CoV-2 (white), the virus that causes COVID-19.Credit: Joep Beumer/Hubrecht Institute

The organoids helping to beat COVID

Tiny lungs and other miniature lab-grown organs are helping researchers to study how SARS-CoV-2 attacks. The approach is in its early days, but organoids offer a middle ground between studying the virus in cell lines, which lack the complexity of real tissue, and in animal models, which mirror human infection poorly and are expensive. “Organoids have found their way into the toolbox of virologists,” says developmental biologist Hans Clevers.

Nature | 12 min read

‘Lab leak’ debate gets toxic

Debate over the idea that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a lab in China has reached a fever pitch, especially in the United States. Some scientists argue that this ‘lab leak’ hypothesis requires a thorough, independent inquiry. But, for many researchers, the tone of the growing demands is unsettling. They say the volatility of the debate could thwart efforts to study the virus’s origins, fuel online bullying and anti-Asian harassment, exacerbate tensions between the United States and China and drive a wedge between international scientists. “This debate has moved so far from the evidence that I don’t know if we can dial it back,” says virologist Angela Rasmussen.

Nature | 8 min read

Antibodies probably last a lifetime

Researchers have identified long-lived antibody-producing cells in the bone marrow of people who have recovered from COVID-19. The findings suggest that immunity triggered by SARS-CoV-2 infection will be extraordinarily long-lasting. Immunologist Menno van Zelm adds to the good news: “The implications are that vaccines will have the same durable effect.” However, some emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants appear to be able to blunt the protective effects of antibodies, suggesting that a vaccine booster might be needed to restore their power.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Features & opinion

Go beyond blood to understand immunity

“The pandemic has revealed major gaps in our understanding of the human immune system,” argues immunologist Donna Farber. We must move beyond our focus on blood and ramp up methods to study immunity in the whole body, she says. “For SARS-CoV-2, examining blood has helped to track responses to infection and vaccines, and to find correlates of severe disease,” she writes. “But much of the story is still unknown, because the bulk of the immune action is in the tissues.”

Nature | 11 min read

Bullied scientists break their silence

Almost 2,000 people responded to a survey about academic bullying. Many shared stories of feeling powerless, with no one to turn to for fear of retaliation. Science shares a selection of responses from the survey that reveal the often bumpy — and sometimes blocked — road to justice.

Science | 13 min read

Reference: SSRN preprint

Quote of the day

“Before we get to what these mysterious phenomena are, we need to be asking how we can figure out what they are. This is where scientists, notably absent from the current UAP conversation, come in.”

The recently revitalized debate about unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) — commonly called UFOs — should be subject to some seriously rigorous science, argue planetary scientists Ravi Kopparapu and Jacob Haqq-Misra. (The Washington Post | 4 min read)

Happy world otter day! To celebrate, enjoy video of a recent sighting of a giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) in Argentina, where it hasn’t been seen for decades and was feared to be extinct.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

Nature Briefing

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