NATURE BRIEFING

Advances in technology are accelerating the search for drugs to arm the immune system against SARS-CoV-2. Plus, China’s mission to Mars launches successfully and stone tools hint that people arrived much earlier than thought in the Americas.

Search for this author in:

Hello Nature readers, would you like to get this Briefing in your inbox free every day? Sign up here

A lander for China's Mars mission

A lander for China's Mars mission

China’s mission to Mars aims to place a lander (pictured) and a rover on the planet’s surface.Credit: Jason Lee/Reuters

China’s spacecraft is on its way to Mars after launching successfully from Hainan Island in southern China. The mission — named Tianwen-1, which means ‘questions to heaven’ — is the country’s first attempt to land on the red planet. The launch seals a global era in deep-space exploration: the United Arab Emirates launched its Hope orbiter earlier this week, and the United States’ Perseverance rover is likely to launch next week. Chinese officials have been tight-lipped about many details of Tianwen-1, but we know that if all goes well the mission will land a six-wheel, solar-powered rover in April.

Nature | 4 min read

Read more: Countdown to Mars: three daring missions take aim at the red planet (Nature | 11 min read)

A massive haul of stone tools discovered in a cave in Mexico is evidence that people occupied the area more than 30,000 years ago. The finding suggests that humans arrived in North America at least 15,000 years earlier than had been thought. The discovery is backed up by a separate statistical analysis incorporating data from sites in North America and Siberia. But some researchers are unconvinced. They question the age of the tools, and whether the artefacts are tools at all, rather than objects created by natural processes. Data from caves are “notoriously troublesome” to interpret, says archaeologist François Lanoë.

Nature | 5 min read

Go deeper with anthropologist Ruth Gruhn’s expert analysis in the Nature News & Views article.

Reference: Nature paper 1 & Nature paper 2

Map of North and South America showing some sites associated with early human occupation

Map of North and South America showing some sites associated with early human occupation

New evidence from Chiquihuite Cave in Mexico joins other sites across the Americas where scientists have found signs of early human occupationkyr, a thousand years ago

A diminutive bird-like skull, exquisitely preserved in amber for almost 100 million years, did not belong to the smallest dinosaur ever discovered. It was probably a lizard. In March, I told you the skull might offer a whole new lineage of birds, but yesterday the paper was retracted. “I agree we were wrong and an unpublished specimen will eventually prove it,” palaeontologist and study author Jingmai O’Connor told Retraction Watch, though she disagreed with the choice to retract the paper.

Nature | 3 min read

Reference: Nature paper (retracted) & bioRxiv preprint (not peer reviewed)

Coronavirus research highlights: 1-minute reads

Severely ill people yield 19 powerful antibodies

Scientists have identified a diverse group of antibodies that block the new coronavirus’s ability to infect cells — even when applied in low doses. Researchers analysed the plasma of 5 people with severe cases of COVID-19 and found 19 neutralizing antibodies that prevented SARS-CoV-2 infection in cell samples. A small dose of one of the antibodies protected golden Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) from the infection.

Reference: Nature paper

Viral levels could help to target treatment

The amount of viral RNA in the nose and throat of a person infected with the new coronavirus could help clinicians to decide how to treat them. Researchers analysed the viral load in samples taken from 4,172 people infected with SARS-CoV-2, and noticed 2 distinct stages of COVID-19. Early in the disease, people have high viral loads, which tend to decline gradually as the disease progresses. This later stage is typically characterized by inflammation. Viral-load decline could thus be a cue to start treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs. There was no correlation between viral load and the severity of disease.

Reference: arXiv preprint (not peer reviewed)

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

Features & opinion

Advances in technology are accelerating the search for drugs to arm the immune system against SARS-CoV-2. Researchers are using informatics to design more effective vaccines, and are speeding up development with plug-and-play platform technologies. They’re also studying pathogen protein structures in the hope of creating a more powerful vaccine.

Nature | 12 min read

“I have wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember, yet during my undergraduate and graduate years, several incidents of bias and powerful isolation led me to seriously question whether I belong in physics,” writes physicist Charles D. Brown II. He shares some of his harrowing personal experiences and offers ways that the physics community can start addressing the underrepresentation of Black people.

Physics Today | 10 min read

Infographic of the week

Cartoon from The Virus of SARS-CoV-2 using a spike protein to attach to an ACE2 receptor.

Cartoon from The Virus of SARS-CoV-2 using a spike protein to attach to an ACE2 receptor.

This depiction of SARS-CoV-2 using a spike protein to attach to an ACE2 receptor is from neuroscientist Ben Martynoga and artist (and Twitter wit) Moose Allain’s new book, The Virus. The primer on viruses in general and SARS-CoV-2 in particular is suitable for children from 9 years old, and for adults like me who just find this all a bit easier to take when it’s accompanied by some cartoons.(Moose Allain)

Sunfish can grow to weigh over 2,000 kilograms, but look at their tiny 2-millimetre babies!

Help this newsletter to grow into something big — please send your feedback to briefing@nature.com.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.