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Voters in California have approved US$5.5 billion in funding for stem-cell and other medical research, granting a lifeline to a controversial state agency. But scientists are split over whether the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in Oakland is a worthwhile investment for the US state — or for the field of stem-cell research. “As scientists, everybody always welcomes additional funding,” says Arlene Chiu, former director of scientific activities at CIRM. “But as a Californian, one wonders if there are better ways to do this.”
You wouldn’t rewrite a blueprint while constructing the foundations of a building — and the same goes for genes for essential functions. Take, for instance the development of the body plan, the genes for which have altered very little over millions of years of evolution. Or so we thought. Researchers silenced and swapped genes in different Drosophila species and found that the most rapidly evolving ones were surprisingly likely to encode essential functions. The reason might lurk in the densely packed DNA ‘junkyard’ known as heterochromatin, which evolves very rapidly. Some genes that encode essential functions might have to keep evolving just to keep up with the changing DNA environment of the heterochromatin. “It’s almost like an arms race happening in the genome,” says evolutionary biologist Harmit Malik.
Features & opinion
For decades, researchers were baffled by fossils of bizarre living things that dated back to the Ediacaran period, around half a billion years ago. But evidence now suggests that some of these alien-like species were in fact animals — and some even had guts, segmented bodies and other sophisticated features. Discover these bizarre ancient species in the audio version of Nature’s feature, made even more delightful by the sonorous voice of Nature’s Benjamin Thompson.
“The idea that scientists build their own equipment is as old as science,” notes neuroscientist Tom Baden, who co-founded an organization that provides training in open-science hardware in Africa. What’s new is the online availability of a vast array of free open-source designs, and the growing ease of building them using 3D printers and hobbyist electronics such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Coupled with open-source reagents, these resources are making advanced diagnostics accessible even in resource-poor regions that lack trained technicians, cold storage and reliable power.
The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to erode huge gains against HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and maternal mortality. As she dedicates herself to the fight against COVID-19, infectious disease researcher Francine Ntoumi looks for silver linings. “To get through my work day after day, this is how I see the COVID-19 pandemic: as an opportunity to build structures that will reduce the burden of all tropical diseases,” writes the head of the Congolese Foundation for Medical Research. “I do not want to think about a world where that does not happen.”
Image of the week
This is the ‘tongue’ — or radula — of a freshwater snail, magnified 40 times. Snails and other gastropods use their radula to scrape the algae that they feed on from rocks and other surfaces. The tiny comb-shaped structures at the edge function like teeth, scraping and cutting up the material before it is swallowed. This close-up was taken by molecular biologist Igor Siwanowicz. It has been colour-coded to show depth — the parts that are closest to the camera are bright pink, and the farthest away are blue. The shot won third place in the Nikon Small World 2020 photomicrography competition. See more of the month’s sharpest science shots, selected by Nature’s photo team.
Today I’m streaming all Dolly Parton tunes to celebrate her helping to fund the Moderna COVID vaccine candidate. Parton’s US$1-million COVID-19 research fund has also supported research into convalescent plasma.
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