June 4, 2023
Daily briefing: Trinity the T. rex could be lost to science

Daily briefing: Trinity the T. rex could be lost to science

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The complete skeleton of a T. rex propped up in a lifelike stance in an otherwise empty room, illuminated by eerie red lighting.

Trinity the Tyrannosaurus rex will be auctioned next month, which might make it inaccessible to researchers. (Koller Auctions/Oliver Nanzig)

For the first time in Europe, a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil will go under the hammer in Switzerland next month. The 67-million-year-old skeleton, named Trinity, is a mash-up of bones from three dinosaurs unearthed between 2008 and 2013 in Montana and Wyoming. Trinity has been valued at between US$5.5 million and $8.8 million. Its price tag could put it out of reach of museums and make it inaccessible to researchers. “Everyone who is interested in the natural world loses, from schoolchildren to scientists,” says palaeontologist Thomas Carr.

The Times | 2 min read (paywall) & The Independent | 2 min read

Argentinian mathematician Luis Caffarelli has won the 2023 Abel Prize — essentially a Nobel prize for mathematics — for his work on differential equations. These describe simple-sounding phenomena, such as how the shape of a piece of ice changes as it melts. Yet these problems are often impossible to solve ‘smoothly’, meaning without the numbers running away to unphysical infinites. Caffarelli says his proudest achievement is a milestone result on the smoothness of solutions to the notoriously complex Navier–Stokes equations, which describe how fluids move. Caffarelli is the first person born in South America to win the award.

Nature | 5 min read

Scanning sewage for viruses that infect the typhoid bacterium could reveal where typhoid vaccines are most needed. Although the disease can be treated with antibiotics, some countries have started to immunize people to avoid fuelling antibiotic-resistant typhoid strains. Outbreaks can be traced through waste water, but detecting the bacteria is difficult and expensive. Typhoid-killing viruses can serve as a proxy for typhoid burden. They can be detected by dropping sewage water onto a ‘lawn’ of typhoid bacteria in a Petri dish: if the viruses are present, they will kill the bacteria, forming clear patches on the dish.

Nature | 5 min read

References: medRxiv preprint & bioRxiv preprint (not peer reviewed)

Features & opinion

The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled a niche research field to prominence: bat immunology. Bats are a possible source of catastrophic viral outbreaks in people because the animals can tolerate an exceptionally diverse array of viruses, including coronaviruses, rabies and Ebola. The biological mechanisms behind bats’ weird immune systems are slowly emerging: “There’s kind of a peace treaty,” between bats and the pathogens they host, explains virologist Joshua Hayward. Bats’ genomes seem to suck up viral information like a sponge. It is possible that this protects bats from the negative outcomes of viral infections, just as a vaccine would.

Nature | 14 min read

The US administration is stuck between a rock and a hard place: the country’s climate movement wants clean energy but doesn’t want the necessary minerals mined close to home. “There is virtue in embracing tough trade-offs,” says environmental-security scholar Saleem Ali. Mining has a sordid history of exploitation and plunder. It doesn’t have to be that way: regulatory oversight to ensure mining practices are sustainable can have workable impact–benefit agreements with communities.

Nature | 5 min read

When data scientist Meredith Broussard found out that an artificial intelligence (AI) had been looking through her medical records, it led her down a winding path of testing a cancer-detection algorithm using her own mammography images. We liken computers’ methods to brain processes, which is wrong on many levels, Broussard writes. “A computer generates a prediction — which is different from a diagnosis.” The results of her experiment left her sceptical about whether AI could work well enough outside highly constrained circumstances to replace physicians. “Someday? Maybe. Soon? Unlikely.”

Wired | 14 min read

Afghan scientists say the world must engage with Afghanistan and its regime on climate issues, which could help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the country. A series of droughts over the past few years has been made worse by decades of conflict, poor water management and the Taliban takeover in 2021. The regime abolished the agency responsible for managing water resources. Many former officials with technical expertise have fled, and aid agencies have suspended work. “Some key positions in climate sectors are filled by mullahs” — or religious scholars — “who have zero understanding about climate issues,” says water researcher Najibullah Sadid.

Undark | 9 min read

Quote of the day

Neuroscientist Praveen Paul explains how she and Michael Motskin co-founded Pint of Science, an annual worldwide science festival that brings researchers to local pubs, bars and cafes to discuss their science with the public. (Nature | 6 min read)

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