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Researchers are urging patience as the world waits to discover the impact of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron. Infectious-disease researchers in South Africa identified the ‘variant of concern’ just last week, and many countries have already imposed travel bans in an attempt to stop it from spreading. Initial data suggest that Omicron hosts mutations that could make it more transmissible and better at evading human antibodies. However, finding out what the new variant has in store will take time, because laboratory experiments will take time to complete, and epidemiologists will need to keep a close eye on how many people are being hospitalized and dying from this new variant.
Science | 7 min read
Read more: Heavily mutated Omicron variant puts scientists on alert (Nature | 5 min read, updated on Saturday)
A 64-year-old man from the United States might be the first person to be cured of type 1 diabetes using stem cells. In June, he was given an infusion of insulin-producing cells grown from embryonic stem cells as part of a clinical trial by Vertex Pharmaceuticals. His body now automatically controls its insulin and blood sugar levels, though he does have to take drugs that suppress his immune system. The study has not yet been peer reviewed, and it remains to be seen whether the result will be replicated or whether there are any unanticipated adverse effects of the treatment. Still, “bottom line, it is an amazing result,” says endocrinologist Irl Hirsch.
The New York Times | 9 min read
For the first time, scientists have used individual molecules to act as the slits in the iconic double-slit experiment that demonstrates quantum objects behaving as both particles and waves. Researchers created an ultracold molecular beam in which helium atoms collide with deuterium molecules. They used lasers to coax each deuterium molecule into a superimposed state of two different orientations, at right angles. The helium atoms scatter off the superimposed deuterium on two different paths that interfere with each other, showing the quantum interference effect that is characteristic of the classic double-slit experiment. Because the set-up is tunable, it could be a step towards achieving ‘quantum control’ — which would harness quantum features to manipulate chemical reactions.
Chemistry World | 6 min read
Features & opinion
Scientists in South Africa who worked around the clock to quickly identify the Omicron variant and share their data with the world should be met with more than closed borders, argues geneticist Jeffrey Barrett, leader of the COVID-19 genomic surveillance programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom. “Countries with an abundance of vaccine doses and other resources should offer whatever is asked for by countries now at the front edge of the confrontation with Omicron,” he writes. “It would be a disaster if the global response to this heroically open science sent the message that the reward for such bravery is isolation.”
The Observer | 6 min read
In 2018, biophysicist He Jiankui shocked the world by announcing that he had used the CRISPR genome-editing technique to alter embryos that were implanted and led to the birth of two children. But what happened to the babies? They are said to be healthy toddlers, reports Nature Biotechnology. It investigates how the edits to the girls’ genomes might translate into health benefits or risks, how their condition might be monitored, considering the jailing of He and the closure of his lab, and how other researchers might ethically study the gene-edited girls’ data.
Nature Biotechnology | 12 min read
Hear more: The author of the Nature Biotechnology feature, Vivien Marx, discusses the CRISPR children with physician-scientist Kiran Musunuru (Nature Research Bioengineering Community podcast | 35 min listen)
Euler’s number e is, like its arguably more famous peer π, a transcendental number. That means, in the words of number-namer Leonhard Euler, “they transcend the power of algebraic methods” (or here’s a full definition if you’re keen). It’s also transcendentally lovely, thanks to its role in natural logarithms and its usefulness in situations that involve optimality. Quanta puzzle-master Pradeep Mutalik takes us gently through e’s wonders with the help of three recent brain-benders from the magazine.
Quanta | 14 min read
Infographic of the week
Smoke from wildfires is responsible for tens to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths around the world each year. Scientists want to know what it is in wildfire smoke that makes it more harmful to humans than other forms of pollution. It contains dozens of different particles, such as soot, and chemicals, such as carbon monoxide — but one of the main concerns for air-quality specialists is the tiniest particles in smoke, which measure 2.5 micrometres or less across (on average 1/40th the width of a human hair), and are known as PM2.5. No amount of fine particulate matter is safe to breathe, says biostatistician Francesca Dominici, because it can penetrate deep into the smallest crevices of the lungs and enter the bloodstream. (Nature | 11 min read)
See more of the week’s key infographics, selected by Nature’s news and art teams. (Source: G. Chen et al. Lancet Planet. Health 5, E579–E587 (2021).)