The cover shows an artistic representation of various cancer cells. The large-scale gains, losses and rearrangements of DNA seen in chromosomal instability are a typical feature of cancer — but there is no comprehensive framework to decode the causes of this genomic variability and their possible links to disease. In this week’s issue, Florian Markowetz, Geoff Macintyre and their colleagues present such a framework with a compendium of 17 signatures of chromosomal instability that can be used to predict how tumours might respond to drugs and that help to identify future therapeutic targets. The team created the compendium by examining 7,880 tumours representing 33 types of cancer. In a separate paper, Nischalan Pillay and colleagues examined 9,873 cancers to generate
To study inequality is to confront a world of contrasts: excessive wealth next to palpable poverty; sickness abutting health. The COVID pandemic has exposed and worsened many such disparities. This week, Nature presents a special collection of articles focusing on the researchers trying to quantify and reduce inequality. Whether they are measuring the effects of the pandemic or testing interventions to lift people out of poverty, the message is simple: gathering the right information will help to mitigate the harm caused by inequality.
The cover image shows plants growing at altitude on Altar Volcano in Chimborazo, Ecuador. Extreme altitudes pose challenges for most forms of life, and flowering plants are no exception. But flowering plants have been found growing as high as 6,400 metres above sea level. In this week’s issue, Michael Holdsworth and his colleagues reveal a molecular mechanism that helps plants to adapt to the extremes of altitude. The researchers studied a range of plants, representing four diverse clades of flowering plants — thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), tomato, poppy and the grass
Brachypodium distachyon. They found that plants use genetic adaptations to adjust their sensitivity to atmospheric oxygen, whose partial pressure decreases with altitude. By decoding the ambient oxygen level, the plants are able to sense the altitude at which they grow and optimize internal biochemical processes.
When Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, coined the word eugenics in 1883, he called it the study of the conditions under which “men of a high type are produced”. This gross idea led to the gates of Auschwitz, reminds broadcaster Adam Rutherford (an alumnus of the Galton Laboratory, former name of University College London’s human‑genetics centre). It hasn’t gone away, he explains in his timely salvo on the politics and history of notions that dog genetics, events up to and after the ‘CRISPR twins’ and the resurgence of white supremacy.
Dark and Magical Places
Christopher Kemp Profile/Wellcome Collection (2022)
“I have no sense of direction,” confesses molecular biologist Christopher Kemp — unlike his wife, “an effortless and intuitive navigator”. Once, in a mirror maze, he was transfixed with alarm, and had to be pulled out by his seven-year-old son. Many others experience similar disorientation, sometimes with disastrous results, as when hikers get lost. Their stories vitalize this compelling study of the brain, memory and navigation, in which one psychologist compares our understanding of parts of the brain with knowledge of black holes.
When the World Runs Dry
Nancy F. Castaldo Algonquin (2022)
Globally, millions of people must walk up to 6 kilometres daily to get clean water, says environmental writer Nancy Castaldo. Moreover, each year, more children die as a result of water contamination than from violence, including war, said the United Nations in 2019. Castaldo’s alarming book discusses many examples of shortages and tainting, ranging from drought in Cape Town, South Africa, to lead pollution in Flint, Michigan. She concludes with realistic steps to reduce domestic consumption and contamination.
Making Numbers Count
Chip Heath and Karla Starr Avid Reader (2022)
Business scholar Chip Heath and science journalist Karla Starr are familiar with the need to “translate numbers into instinctive human experience”, informatively and memorably. Unable to find a book on the subject, they decided to write their own. Their diverse guide bubbles with translated statistics. For example, there are about 400 million civilian-owned firearms in the United States — that translates into one for every adult and child, with around 70 million left over.
Genetically Modified Democracy
Aniket Aga Yale Univ. Press (2021)
India’s 1960s Green Revolution began without much deliberation. The government promoted high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, and guaranteed purchase prices. This helped “already well-off, landed farmers”, notes environmentalist Aniket Aga, but led to huge debts for the struggling majority. When genetically modified crops reached India in 2002, they cultivated much more scrutiny, involving scientists, seed companies, farmers, consumers and the state. Aga describes the debate, without claiming to provid
The Casarabe people lived in southwest Amazonia around AD 500–1400, but understanding of this culture has been limited because the archaeological remains are covered in dense forest. In this week’s issue, Heiko Prümers and his colleagues reveal the discovery of new Casarabe settlements in the Bolivian Amazon. The researchers used lidar to scan the forest, revealing 2 large settlements (each covering more than 100 hectares) and 24 smaller sites, 15 of which had previously been known to exist.
The cover image shows Cotoca, one of the two large settlements, in which earthen mounds (one more than 20 metres high) and long causeways can clearly be seen. The team suggests that these results are the first evidence of agrarian-based, low-density urbanism in western Amazonia. They conclude that the region was not as sparsely populated in pre-Hispanic times as was previously thought.
With six sets of chromosomes, the hexaploid cultivated oat (Avena sativa L.) has a complex evolutionary history. In this week’s issue, Nick Sirijovski and his colleagues present a high-quality reference genome for A. sativa alongside those for its close relatives the diploid Avena longiglumis and the tetraploid Avena insularis. By examining the three genomes, the researchers were able to trace genomic reorganizations in the crop’s evolution. They were also able to map the genes for important agronomic traits, highlighting gene families linked to human health and nutrition. With health and sustainability high on global agendas, the team hopes this new resource will bolster genomics-assisted breeding and trait studies to address these challenges and more.
Cilia are characterized by slender, threadlike projections, which are used by biological organisms to control fluid flows at the microscale. Attempts to mimic these structures and engineer cilia-like systems to have broad applications have proved problematic. In this week’s issue, Wei Wang and colleagues present electronically controlled artificial cilia that can be used to create flow patterns in near-surface liquids. The researchers use surface-mounted platinum strips, each about 50 micrometres long, 5 micrometres wide and 10 nanometres thick, and capped on one side with titanium. Applying an oscillating potential with an amplitude of around 1 volt to the cilia drives ions on to and off of the exposed platinum surface. These ions create asymmetric forces that generate a beating pattern that can be used to pump surface liquids in various flow geometries. The cover shows an artist’s impression of the artificial cilia in action.
It is 20 years since journalist Fiona Fox set up the influential Science Media Centre in London, to persuade more scientists to engage with the media. This absorbing, detailed book is her memoir of that period — not, as she makes clear, an “objective record”. Separate chapters deal with controversies such as “Climategate”, “Frankenfoods”, the politicization of science, sexism in research and how the current pandemic epitomizes an “age-old dichotomy” between the need for simple public messaging and the messy complexity of science.
Lucy Cooke Doubleday (2022)
“Try explaining the need to be passive” to a female spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), writes zoologist and author Lucy Cooke, “and she’ll laugh in your face, after she’s bitten it off”. She is dominant in rough play, scent‑marking and territorial defence. By analysing numerous animals, this sparkling attack on scientific sexism draws on many scientists — of multiple genders — to correct stereotypes of the active male versus passive female. Many such concepts were initiated by Charles Darwin, who is nevertheless Cooke’s “scientific idol”.
Marina Umaschi Bers MIT Press (2022)
Early-childhood technologist Marina Bers developed the KIBO robot, which young children can program with coloured, barcoded wooden blocks to learn computer coding. It is the chief character in her engaging book, which presents four key ways to consider coding for kids: as a “playground”; “another language”; a “palette of virtues”; and a “bridge”. The palette includes infusing ethics and moral education into programming. The bridge involves finding points of connection between diverse cultural, ethnic and religious groups.
Robert A. Jacobs Yale Univ. Press (2022)
The Japanese word hibakusha originally described the victims of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power-plant disaster, the term has been widely extended to denote worldwide victims of radiation exposure. Yet it does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary: evidence that “these ‘global hibakusha’ have been largely invisible to us”, because of their relative political insignificance, notes Hiroshima-based historian Robert Jacobs in this grimly important analysis of the cold war.
Travels with Trilobites
Andy Secher Columbia Univ. Press (2022)
The fascinating marine invertebrate known as a trilobite belongs to the beginning of complex animal life. It appeared some 521 million years ago, and endured for more than 250 million years, evolving more than 25,000 recognized species. Palaeontologist Andy Secher coedits the trilobite website for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He owns more than 4,000 trilobite fossils, many of which are pictured in this paean to “the omnipresent monarchs of the world’s ancient se
The researchers use a programmable electric current to switch between high and low temperatures very quickly — typically 0.02 seconds on, 1.08 seconds off. Rapidly quenching the reaction gives high selectivity, maintains catalyst stability and reduces energy usage. The cover image illustrates the heater in action for the pyrolysis of methane — the model reaction the team tested. Methane molecules travel through the pores of the high-temperature heater and are selectively converted into useful products.
Nova explosions occur when a runaway thermonuclear reaction is triggered in a white dwarf that is accreting hydrogen from a companion star. The massive amount of energy released ultimately creates the bright light source that can be seen with a naked eye as a nova. But some of the energy has been predicted to be lost during the initial stages of the reaction as a flash of intense luminosity — a fireball phase — detectable as low-energy X-rays. In this week’s issue, Ole König and his colleagues present observations that corroborate this prediction. Using scans taken by the instrument eROSITA, the researchers identified a short, bright X-ray flash from the nova YZ Reticuli a few hours before it became visible in the optical spectrum. The cover shows an artist’s impression of the nova in the fireball phase.