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Bizarre bird could reshape the standard tree of life

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Number theorist Maryna Viazovska was awarded the Fields Medal for her work on sphere packing.Credit: EPFL/Fred Merz

On 5 July, Maryna Viazovska became the second woman in history to earn one of the top prizes in mathematics: the Fields Medal. Viazovska says her de ella chose problem — how to pack spheres in the most efficient way in a space with eight dimensions — attracted her because it has a simple formulation that can nevertheless be difficult to solve. “You have to chase low-hanging fruit — and some of our low-hanging fruits are still pretty high!” she says. “In mathematics, when we think of open problems, we don’t think in terms of months and years to solve them — often, we think in terms of decades and centuries.” The Ukrainian was an apolitical choice as winner — she was picked for the prize before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began — but she hopes that “maybe this news made somebody’s day better”.

Nature | 5 min read

A clinical trial that recently treated its first participant will test whether base editing — a genome-editing method related to the CRISPR–Cas9 system — can safely be used to make precise, single-letter changes to a DNA sequence. The approach, developed by US biotechnology company Verve Therapeutics, aims to treat a condition that causes dangerously high cholesterol. Base editing doesn’t break both strands of DNA, as CRISPR–Cas9 does, which lowers the chances of introducing unwanted genetic changes. Another base-editing trial, slated to treat its first participant later this year, will attempt to treat sickle-cell disease.

Nature | 5 min read

After six years of fraught negotiations, UK researchers are looking increasingly likely to lose access to the huge pot of European Union research funding known as Horizon Europe. The UK government says it has a back-up financing plan for researchers — called Plan B. But the government itself is in turmoil after the administration of Prime Minister Boris Johnson imploded and he was forced to resign. Catch up on everything we know about the nail-biting funding omnishambles.

Nature | 6min read

Hoatzins (Opisthocomus hoazin) present an evolutionary enigma — one analysis of their DNA suggests that the birds’ closest relatives are cranes and shorebirds, and another found that they are closely related to a group that includes tiny, hovering birds, such as hummingbirds. The riddle is forcing biologists to consider whether to rethink the shape of the standard ‘tree of life’ for modern birds. “Frankly, there is no one in the world who knows what hoatzins are,” says museum curator Joel Cracraft.

The New Yorker | 15 min read

Features & opinions

As head of the UK Medical Research Council, which directs medical research in the United Kingdom, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore was a champion for the importance of science in society. He was a fearless advocate for open dialogue about science, even when — as in the remarkable case of animal research — it put him in the crosshairs of violent extremists. His research by him into the visual systems of cats provided evidence of neural plasticity and led to refinements in the use of eyepatches to prevent vision problems in children. Blakemore died in June, aged 78.

Nature | 5 min read

Leadership researcher Mai Trinh uses ‘gamification’ to help students to master their fears of her accelerated introductory statistics course. She explains how she incorporates badges, leaderboards, quests, ‘bosses’, rewards and silly avatars using low-tech tools such as PowerPoint.

Nature | 6min read

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and spyware are proliferating in Africa without checks and balances, writes Bulelani Jili, an African studies and cybersecurity researcher. Only around half of African countries have laws on data protection, and they are often outdated. A complex web of local and global factors is at play. The region has established problems at the intersections of inequality, crime, governance, race, corruption and policing, says Jili. And there is a hodgepodge of non-African players, including widespread Chinese state investment. Focusing on Kenya and Ethiopia, Jili outlines how the continent can institute the robust checks and balances necessary to reduce the negative consequences of surveillance technologies.

Nature | 12min read

Where I work

Rebecca Cliffe puts a research backpack on a three-toed brown urban sloth

Rebecca Cliffe is a zoologist and executive director of the Sloth Conservation Foundation in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica.Credit: Suzi Eszterhas/Minden Pictures

Zoologist and conservationist Rebecca Cliffe is equipping the world’s slowest mammal with data-logging backpacks to better understand sloths’ behaviour. Here she is pictured with Baguette, a brown-throated three-fingered sloth (Bradypus variegatus). “I adore sloths, but I also envy them,” says Cliffe. “They’re a powerful symbol of the slowness that our society needs more of. They don’t let anything stress them out unless it’s really important — they just get on with life.” (Nature | 3 min read)

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