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Researchers turn to AI in the hunt for new materials

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Nature Briefing

Hello Nature readers,
Today we witness the birth of a planet, discover how coronavirus lockdowns have cut carbon emissions and discuss the problems with immunity passports.

SPHERE image of the young star in polarized light.
This telltale ‘twist’ marks the site where a planet may be forming (ESO/Boccaletti et al.)

A planet is born

Astronomers have captured stunning images of a planet forming at the heart of a spiralling disc of gas and dust near AB Aurigae, a star located around 520 light years from Earth. The snap was taken using a near-infrared camera on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. To get better contrast, researchers used a ‘coronagraph’ to block out the star’s light. But even then, it isn’t possible to glimpse the baby planet itself. “We see the structure that the planet produces on the spiral — this is what we call a twist,” says astronomer Anthony Boccaletti.

Vice | 4 min read
Source: Astronomy & Astrophysics paper

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

A woman wearing a facemask walks on a pedestrian bridge while traffic congestion is seen on a road in Wuhan
Energy consumption is starting to rebound in China as lockdowns are eased. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty)

Pandemic response slashes carbon emissions

The international response to the coronavirus pandemic has so far cut global carbon emissions by more than 8%, according to estimates from a pair of independent research teams. That’s roughly three times the annual emissions of Italy. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” says climate scientist Corinne Le Quéré. But energy consumption is already rebounding in China and elsewhere, and the pandemic could register as little more than a blip in the climate system as government-imposed lockdowns come to an end.
Nature | 5 min read

Immunity passports are a bad idea
The World Health Organization has spoken out against the idea of lifting restrictions for people who test positive for antibodies to the coronavirus, but some governments are still considering it. Natalie Kofler and Françoise Baylis point out ten practical problems and ethical objections — including the unreliability of tests that are currently available, the potential for discrimination and risks to privacy and public health.
Nature | 11 min read

Hurricanes could threaten US efforts to fight COVID-19
US forecasters are warning of an unusually active hurricane season this year, with predictions of dozens of severe Atlantic storms due to a La Niña climate event in the Pacific. Coping with the aftermath of hurricanes that make landfall will be challenging in light of the pandemic, researchers warn, as emergency shelters could become hotspots for infection. “This year is different because you can’t put a bunch of people in an elementary school with a disease spreading,” says Steven Davis, president of disaster-preparation firm All Hands Consulting. “We are having to redo all of our plans.”
The Guardian | 6 min read

Notable quotable

“You can’t just say you’re following the science in every case.”

Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan says scientists should not be penalized for giving advice to policymakers, after a UK cabinet minister appeared to blame mistakes in the country’s pandemic response on the ‘wrong’ science. (The Guardian | 6 min read)

Coronavirus research highlights: 1-minute reads

Recovered monkeys resist re-infection
Monkeys that had recovered from infection with the coronavirus were shown to be protected from re-infection, although how long the protection lasts is unclear. Researchers gave doses of the coronavirus to nine rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), which developed mild symptoms and antibodies against the virus. A month later, they gave the monkeys another dose of virus. All nine mounted an antibody response to this second dose, suggesting that their immune systems had fought off the virus.
Reference: Science paper

Virus ravages organs from heart to brain
Autopsies on 27 people with COVID-19 have found the coronavirus not only in the lungs, but also in the kidneys, liver, heart, brain and blood. By scrutinizing databases of genetic activity, researchers also found that three genes known to encourage SARS-CoV-2 infection are highly active in kidney cells. Additional analysis of six people detected virus in all examined kidney compartments, which helps to explain the kidney damage seen in some people with the illness.
Reference: The New England Journal of Medicine paper

Antibody against SARS could help to fight COVID-19
An antibody discovered in the blood of a person who survived severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) could potentially help others to fight COVID-19. The new antibody recognizes and blocks both the COVID-19 coronavirus and the one that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. It works by binding to a viral protein called spike that both viruses use to enter cells.
Reference: Nature paper

Get more of Nature’s continuously updated selection of the must-read papers and preprints on COVID-19.

Features & opinion

AI powers search for new materials

Researchers on the hunt for new materials are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Algorithms can predict the physical characteristics of selected crystal structures from first principles, and neural networks can use that information to make guesses about much larger gamuts of possible materials. In future, automated labs might help to make the materials more quickly. But even a robotic lab will need human overseers: synthesis still involves “a fair amount of artisanship,” says electrical engineer Ted Sargent.

Wired | 6 min read
Source: Nature paper

Quote of the day

“No more hidden figures and no more hidden galaxies."

NASA is naming its new space telescope after its former chief astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, who helped to make the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. (NASA | 6 min read)

By now you’re probably aware of the concept of herd immunity — but what about nerd immunity? We’re loving this Twitter user’s epidemiological approach to fighting fake news.

We’re not immune to (constructive) criticism! Send your feedback on this newsletter to

Emma Stoye, news editor, Nature
With contributions by Davide Castelvecchi

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