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Nature is the international weekly journal of science: a magazine style journal that publishes full-length research papers in all disciplines of science, as well as News and Views, reviews, news, features, commentaries, web focuses and more, covering all


Defining synonymous codon compression schemes by genome recoding


REXER, a new method that allows long sections of DNA to be inserted or replaced in the genome of the bacterium Escherichia coli, is used to investigate codon replacement schemes for the generation of synthetic genomes.

Atomic model for the membrane-embedded VO motor of a eukaryotic V-ATPase


Vacuolar-type ATPases (V-ATPases) are ATP-powered proton pumps involved in processes such as endocytosis, lysosomal degradation, secondary transport, TOR signalling, and osteoclast and kidney function. ATP hydrolysis in the soluble catalytic V1 region drives proton translocation through the membrane-embedded VO region via rotation of a rotor subcomplex. Variability in the structure of the intact enzyme has prevented construction of an atomic model for the membrane-embedded motor of any rotary ATPase. We induced dissociation and auto-inhibition of the V1 and VO regions of the V-ATPase by starving the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, allowing us to obtain a ~3.9-Å resolution electron cryomicroscopy map of the VO complex and build atomic models for the majority of its subunits. The analysis reveals the structures of subunits ac8c′c″de and a protein that we identify and propose to be a new subunit (subunit f). A large cavity between subunit a and the c-ring creates a cytoplasmic half-channel for protons. The c-ring has an asymmetric distribution of proton-carrying Glu residues, with the Glu residue of subunit c″ interacting with Arg735 of subunit a. The structure suggests sequential protonation and deprotonation of the c-ring, with ATP-hydrolysis-driven rotation causing protonation of a Glu residue at the cytoplasmic half-channel and subsequent deprotonation of a Glu residue at a luminal half-channel.

Olfactory receptor pseudo-pseudogenes


Pseudogenes are generally considered to be non-functional DNA sequences that arise through nonsense or frame-shift mutations of protein-coding genes. Although certain pseudogene-derived RNAs have regulatory roles, and some pseudogene fragments are translated, no clear functions for pseudogene-derived proteins are known. Olfactory receptor families contain many pseudogenes, which reflect low selection pressures on loci no longer relevant to the fitness of a species. Here we report the characterization of a pseudogene in the chemosensory variant ionotropic glutamate receptor repertoire of Drosophila sechellia, an insect endemic to the Seychelles that feeds almost exclusively on the ripe fruit of Morinda citrifolia. This locus, D. sechellia Ir75a, bears a premature termination codon (PTC) that appears to be fixed in the population. However, D. sechellia Ir75a encodes a functional receptor, owing to efficient translational read-through of the PTC. Read-through is detected only in neurons and is independent of the type of termination codon, but depends on the sequence downstream of the PTC. Furthermore, although the intact Drosophila melanogaster Ir75a orthologue detects acetic acid—a chemical cue important for locating fermenting food found only at trace levels in Morinda fruit—D. sechellia Ir75a has evolved distinct odour-tuning properties through amino-acid changes in its ligand-binding domain. We identify functional PTC-containing loci within different olfactory receptor repertoires and species, suggesting that such ‘pseudo-pseudogenes’ could represent a widespread phenomenon.

Amazon boundary layer aerosol concentration sustained by vertical transport during rainfall


The nucleation of atmospheric vapours is an important source of new aerosol particles that can subsequently grow to form cloud condensation nuclei in the atmosphere. Most field studies of atmospheric aerosols over continents are influenced by atmospheric vapours of anthropogenic origin (for example, ref. 2) and, in consequence, aerosol processes in pristine, terrestrial environments remain poorly understood. The Amazon rainforest is one of the few continental regions where aerosol particles and their precursors can be studied under near-natural conditions, but the origin of small aerosol particles that grow into cloud condensation nuclei in the Amazon boundary layer remains unclear. Here we present aircraft- and ground-based measurements under clean conditions during the wet season in the central Amazon basin. We find that high concentrations of small aerosol particles (with diameters of less than 50 nanometres) in the lower free troposphere are transported from the free troposphere into the boundary layer during precipitation events by strong convective downdrafts and weaker downward motions in the trailing stratiform region. This rapid vertical transport can help to maintain the population of particles in the pristine Amazon boundary layer, and may therefore influence cloud properties and climate under natural conditions.

DNA repair: Telomere-lengthening mechanism revealed


Shortening of the ends of chromosomes limits a cell's lifespan. Some cancer cells avoid this fate through a mechanism called alternative lengthening of telomeres, molecular details of which have now been defined.

Behavioural biology: Stones that could cause ripples


Monkeys have been observed pounding stones and unintentionally forming sharp-edged, tool-like fragments. This deliberate breakage raises questions about the evolution of intentional stone modification.

Break-induced telomere synthesis underlies alternative telomere maintenance


Alternative lengthening of telomeres in cancer cells is initiated by a specialized replisome and noncanonical homologous recombination at damaged telomeres, culminating in the synthesis of long tracts of telomere DNA.

The MCL1 inhibitor S63845 is tolerable and effective in diverse cancer models


S63845 specifically inhibits MCL1 and induces tumour cell death in vitro and in vivo in diverse cancer-derived cell lines with an acceptable safety margin.

TET-mediated DNA demethylation controls gastrulation by regulating Lefty–Nodal signalling


Mammalian genomes undergo epigenetic modifications, including cytosine methylation by DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs). Oxidation of 5-methylcytosine by the Ten-eleven translocation (TET) family of dioxygenases can lead to demethylation. Although cytosine methylation has key roles in several processes such as genomic imprinting and X-chromosome inactivation, the functional significance of cytosine methylation and demethylation in mouse embryogenesis remains to be fully determined. Here we show that inactivation of all three Tet genes in mice leads to gastrulation phenotypes, including primitive streak patterning defects in association with impaired maturation of axial mesoderm and failed specification of paraxial mesoderm, mimicking phenotypes in embryos with gain-of-function Nodal signalling. Introduction of a single mutant allele of Nodal in the Tet mutant background partially restored patterning, suggesting that hyperactive Nodal signalling contributes to the gastrulation failure of Tet mutants. Increased Nodal signalling is probably due to diminished expression of the Lefty1 and Lefty2 genes, which encode inhibitors of Nodal signalling. Moreover, reduction in Lefty gene expression is linked to elevated DNA methylation, as both Lefty–Nodal signalling and normal morphogenesis are largely restored in Tet-deficient embryos when the Dnmt3a and Dnmt3b genes are disrupted. Additionally, a point mutation in Tet that specifically abolishes the dioxygenase activity causes similar morphological and molecular abnormalities as the null mutation. Taken together, our results show that TET-mediated oxidation of 5-methylcytosine modulates Lefty–Nodal signalling by promoting demethylation in opposition to methylation by DNMT3A and DNMT3B. These findings reveal a fundamental epigenetic mechanism featuring dynamic DNA methylation and demethylation crucial to regulation of key signalling pathways in early body plan formation.

Fluvial sediment supply to a mega-delta reduced by shifting tropical-cyclone activity


The world’s rivers deliver 19 billion tonnes of sediment to the coastal zone annually, with a considerable fraction being sequestered in large deltas, home to over 500 million people. Most (more than 70 per cent) large deltas are under threat from a combination of rising sea levels, ground surface subsidence and anthropogenic sediment trapping, and a sustainable supply of fluvial sediment is therefore critical to prevent deltas being ‘drowned’ by rising relative sea levels. Here we combine suspended sediment load data from the Mekong River with hydrological model simulations to isolate the role of tropical cyclones in transmitting suspended sediment to one of the world’s great deltas. We demonstrate that spatial variations in the Mekong’s suspended sediment load are correlated (r = 0.765, P < 0.1) with observed variations in tropical-cyclone climatology, and that a substantial portion (32 per cent) of the suspended sediment load reaching the delta is delivered by runoff generated by rainfall associated with tropical cyclones. Furthermore, we estimate that the suspended load to the delta has declined by 52.6 ± 10.2 megatonnes over recent years (1981–2005), of which 33.0 ± 7.1 megatonnes is due to a shift in tropical-cyclone climatology. Consequently, tropical cyclones have a key role in controlling the magnitude of, and variability in, transmission of suspended sediment to the coast. It is likely that anthropogenic sediment trapping in upstream reservoirs is a dominant factor in explaining past, and anticipating future, declines in suspended sediment loads reaching the world’s major deltas. However, our study shows that changes in tropical-cyclone climatology affect trends in fluvial suspended sediment loads and thus are also key to fully assessing the risk posed to vulnerable coastal systems.

Mechanism for DNA transposons to generate introns on genomic scales


The discovery of introns four decades ago was one of the most unexpected findings in molecular biology. Introns are sequences interrupting genes that must be removed as part of messenger RNA production. Genome sequencing projects have shown that most eukaryotic genes contain at least one intron, and frequently many. Comparison of these genomes reveals a history of long evolutionary periods during which few introns were gained, punctuated by episodes of rapid, extensive gain. However, although several detailed mechanisms for such episodic intron generation have been proposed, none has been empirically supported on a genomic scale. Here we show how short, non-autonomous DNA transposons independently generated hundreds to thousands of introns in the prasinophyte Micromonas pusilla and the pelagophyte Aureococcus anophagefferens. Each transposon carries one splice site. The other splice site is co-opted from the gene sequence that is duplicated upon transposon insertion, allowing perfect splicing out of the RNA. The distributions of sequences that can be co-opted are biased with respect to codons, and phasing of transposon-generated introns is similarly biased. These transposons insert between pre-existing nucleosomes, so that multiple nearby insertions generate nucleosome-sized intervening segments. Thus, transposon insertion and sequence co-option may explain the intron phase biases and prevalence of nucleosome-sized exons observed in eukaryotes. Overall, the two independent examples of proliferating elements illustrate a general DNA transposon mechanism that can plausibly account for episodes of rapid, extensive intron gain during eukaryotic evolution.

Wild monkeys flake stone tools


Our understanding of the emergence of technology shapes how we view the origins of humanity. Sharp-edged stone flakes, struck from larger cores, are the primary evidence for the earliest stone technology. Here we show that wild bearded capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus) in Brazil deliberately break stones, unintentionally producing recurrent, conchoidally fractured, sharp-edged flakes and cores that have the characteristics and morphology of intentionally produced hominin tools. The production of archaeologically visible cores and flakes is therefore no longer unique to the human lineage, providing a comparative perspective on the emergence of lithic technology. This discovery adds an additional dimension to interpretations of the human Palaeolithic record, the possible function of early stone tools, and the cognitive requirements for the emergence of stone flaking.

Chromosome conformation elucidates regulatory relationships in developing human brain


High-resolution three-dimensional maps of chromatin contacts in the developing human brain help to identify enhancer–promoter contacts, many of which are associated with human cognitive function and disease.

The stem osteichthyan Andreolepis and the origin of tooth replacement


The extinct Andreolepis, an early fish that is close to the common ancestor of all bony fish and land vertebrates, shed its teeth by basal resportion—the earliest example of this mode of tooth replacement.

T-cell acute leukaemia exhibits dynamic interactions with bone marrow microenvironments


It is widely accepted that complex interactions between cancer cells and their surrounding microenvironment contribute to disease development, chemo-resistance and disease relapse. In light of this observed interdependency, novel therapeutic interventions that target specific cancer stroma cell lineages and their interactions are being sought. Here we studied a mouse model of human T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (T-ALL) and used intravital microscopy to monitor the progression of disease within the bone marrow at both the tissue-wide and single-cell level over time, from bone marrow seeding to development/selection of chemo-resistance. We observed highly dynamic cellular interactions and promiscuous distribution of leukaemia cells that migrated across the bone marrow, without showing any preferential association with bone marrow sub-compartments. Unexpectedly, this behaviour was maintained throughout disease development, from the earliest bone marrow seeding to response and resistance to chemotherapy. Our results reveal that T-ALL cells do not depend on specific bone marrow microenvironments for propagation of disease, nor for the selection of chemo-resistant clones, suggesting that a stochastic mechanism underlies these processes. Yet, although T-ALL infiltration and progression are independent of the stroma, accumulated disease burden leads to rapid, selective remodelling of the endosteal space, resulting in a complete loss of mature osteoblastic cells while perivascular cells are maintained. This outcome leads to a shift in the balance of endogenous bone marrow stroma, towards a composition associated with less efficient haematopoietic stem cell function. This novel, dynamic analysis of T-ALL interactions with the bone marrow microenvironment in vivo, supported by evidence from human T-ALL samples, highlights that future therapeutic interventions should target the migration and promiscuous interactions of cancer cells with the surrounding microenvironment, rather than specific bone marrow stroma, to combat the invasion by and survival of chemo-resistant T-ALL cells.

Reconstitution in vitro of the entire cycle of the mouse female germ line


The female germ line undergoes a unique sequence of differentiation processes that confers totipotency to the egg. The reconstitution of these events in vitro using pluripotent stem cells is a key achievement in reproductive biology and regenerative medicine. Here we report successful reconstitution in vitro of the entire process of oogenesis from mouse pluripotent stem cells. Fully potent mature oocytes were generated in culture from embryonic stem cells and from induced pluripotent stem cells derived from both embryonic fibroblasts and adult tail tip fibroblasts. Moreover, pluripotent stem cell lines were re-derived from the eggs that were generated in vitro, thereby reconstituting the full female germline cycle in a dish. This culture system will provide a platform for elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying totipotency and the production of oocytes of other mammalian species in culture.

Mantle dynamics inferred from the crystallographic preferred orientation of bridgmanite


Seismic shear wave anisotropy is observed in Earth’s uppermost lower mantle around several subducted slabs. The anisotropy caused by the deformation-induced crystallographic preferred orientation (CPO) of bridgmanite (perovskite-structured (Mg,Fe)SiO3) is the most plausible explanation for these seismic observations. However, the rheological properties of bridgmanite are largely unknown. Uniaxial deformation experiments have been carried out to determine the deformation texture of bridgmanite, but the dominant slip system (the slip direction and plane) has not been determined. Here we report the CPO pattern and dominant slip system of bridgmanite under conditions that correspond to the uppermost lower mantle (25 gigapascals and 1,873 kelvin) obtained through simple shear deformation experiments using the Kawai-type deformation-DIA apparatus. The fabrics obtained are characterized by [100] perpendicular to the shear plane and [001] parallel to the shear direction, implying that the dominant slip system of bridgmanite is [001](100). The observed seismic shear- wave anisotropies near several subducted slabs (Tonga–Kermadec, Kurile, Peru and Java) can be explained in terms of the CPO of bridgmanite as induced by mantle flow parallel to the direction of subduction.

Social science: Female genital cutting under the spotlight


Variations in opinion between members of a community can be exploited to facilitate desirable changes in attitude, as exemplified by films that explore different beliefs about female genital cutting.

Synthetic biology: Precision timing in a cell


A 16-year-old synthetic genetic circuit that produces gene-expression oscillations in bacterial cells has been given an upgrade, making it an exceptionally precise biological clock.

Artificial intelligence: Deep neural reasoning


The human brain can solve highly abstract reasoning problems using a neural network that is entirely physical. The underlying mechanisms are only partially understood, but an artificial network provides valuable insight.

Palaeontology: Ancient avian aria from Antarctica


A discovery of the sound-producing vocal organ known as the syrinx in a bird fossil from the end of the 'age of dinosaurs' highlights the anatomical basis for myriad aspects of avian social and behavioural evolution.

Hybrid computing using a neural network with dynamic external memory


A ‘differentiable neural computer’ is introduced that combines the learning capabilities of a neural network with an external memory analogous to the random-access memory in a conventional computer.

Catalytic alkylation of remote C–H bonds enabled by proton-coupled electron transfer


Despite advances in hydrogen atom transfer (HAT) catalysis, there are currently no molecular HAT catalysts that are capable of homolysing the strong nitrogen–hydrogen (N–H) bonds of N-alkyl amides. The motivation to develop amide homolysis protocols stems from the utility of the resultant amidyl radicals, which are involved in various synthetically useful transformations, including olefin amination and directed carbon–hydrogen (C–H) bond functionalization. In the latter process—a subset of the classical Hofmann–Löffler–Freytag reaction—amidyl radicals remove hydrogen atoms from unactivated aliphatic C–H bonds. Although powerful, these transformations typically require oxidative N-prefunctionalization of the amide starting materials to achieve efficient amidyl generation. Moreover, because these N-activating groups are often incorporated into the final products, these methods are generally not amenable to the direct construction of carbon–carbon (C–C) bonds. Here we report an approach that overcomes these limitations by homolysing the N–H bonds of N-alkyl amides via proton-coupled electron transfer. In this protocol, an excited-state iridium photocatalyst and a weak phosphate base cooperatively serve to remove both a proton and an electron from an amide substrate in a concerted elementary step. The resultant amidyl radical intermediates are shown to promote subsequent C–H abstraction and radical alkylation steps. This C–H alkylation represents a catalytic variant of the Hofmann–Löffler–Freytag reaction, using simple, unfunctionalized amides to direct the formation of new C–C bonds. Given the prevalence of amides in pharmaceuticals and natural products, we anticipate that this method will simplify the synthesis and structural elaboration of amine-containing targets. Moreover, this study demonstrates that concerted proton-coupled electron transfer can enable homolytic activation of common organic functional groups that are energetically inaccessible using traditional HAT-based approaches.

Amide-directed photoredox-catalysed C–C bond formation at unactivated sp3 C–H bonds


Carbon–carbon (C–C) bond formation is paramount in the synthesis of biologically relevant molecules, modern synthetic materials and commodity chemicals such as fuels and lubricants. Traditionally, the presence of a functional group is required at the site of C–C bond formation. Strategies that allow C–C bond formation at inert carbon–hydrogen (C–H) bonds enable access to molecules that would otherwise be inaccessible and the development of more efficient syntheses of complex molecules. Here we report a method for the formation of C–C bonds by directed cleavage of traditionally non-reactive C–H bonds and their subsequent coupling with readily available alkenes. Our methodology allows for amide-directed selective C–C bond formation at unactivated sp3 C–H bonds in molecules that contain many such bonds that are seemingly indistinguishable. Selectivity arises through a relayed photoredox-catalysed oxidation of a nitrogen–hydrogen bond. We anticipate that our findings will serve as a starting point for functionalization at inert C–H bonds through a strategy involving hydrogen-atom transfer.

Fossil evidence of the avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic


From complex songs to simple honks, birds produce sounds using a unique vocal organ called the syrinx. Located close to the heart at the tracheobronchial junction, vocal folds or membranes attached to modified mineralized rings vibrate to produce sound. Syringeal components were not thought to commonly enter the fossil record, and the few reported fossilized parts of the syrinx are geologically young (from the Pleistocene and Holocene (approximately 2.5 million years ago to the present)). The only known older syrinx is an Eocene specimen that was not described or illustrated. Data on the relationship between soft tissue structures and syringeal three-dimensional geometry are also exceptionally limited. Here we describe the first remains, to our knowledge, of a fossil syrinx from the Mesozoic Era, which are preserved in three dimensions in a specimen from the Late Cretaceous (approximately 66 to 69 million years ago) of Antarctica. With both cranial and postcranial remains, the new Vegavis iaai specimen is the most complete to be recovered from a part of the radiation of living birds (Aves). Enhanced-contrast X-ray computed tomography (CT) of syrinx structure in twelve extant non-passerine birds, as well as CT imaging of the Vegavis and Eocene syrinxes, informs both the reconstruction of ancestral states in birds and properties of the vocal organ in the extinct species. Fused rings in Vegavis form a well-mineralized pessulus, a derived neognath bird feature, proposed to anchor enlarged vocal folds or labia. Left-right bronchial asymmetry, as seen in Vegavis, is only known in extant birds with two sets of vocal fold sound sources. The new data show the fossilization potential of the avian vocal organ and beg the question why these remains have not been found in other dinosaurs. The lack of other Mesozoic tracheobronchial remains, and the poorly mineralized condition in archosaurian taxa without a syrinx, may indicate that a complex syrinx was a late arising feature in the evolution of birds, well after the origin of flight and respiratory innovations.

Synchronous long-term oscillations in a synthetic gene circuit


Synthetically engineered genetic circuits can perform a wide variety of tasks but are generally less accurate than natural systems. Here we revisit the first synthetic genetic oscillator, the repressilator, and modify it using principles from stochastic chemistry in single cells. Specifically, we sought to reduce error propagation and information losses, not by adding control loops, but by simply removing existing features. We show that this modification created highly regular and robust oscillations. Furthermore, some streamlined circuits kept 14 generation periods over a range of growth conditions and kept phase for hundreds of generations in single cells, allowing cells in flasks and colonies to oscillate synchronously without any coupling between them. Our results suggest that even the simplest synthetic genetic networks can achieve a precision that rivals natural systems, and emphasize the importance of noise analyses for circuit design in synthetic biology.

Changing cultural attitudes towards female genital cutting


As globalization brings people with incompatible attitudes into contact, cultural conflicts inevitably arise. Little is known about how to mitigate conflict and about how the conflicts that occur can shape the cultural evolution of the groups involved. Female genital cutting is a prominent example. Governments and international agencies have promoted the abandonment of cutting for decades, but the practice remains widespread with associated health risks for millions of girls and women. In their efforts to end cutting, international agents have often adopted the view that cutting is locally pervasive and entrenched. This implies the need to introduce values and expectations from outside the local culture. Members of the target society may view such interventions as unwelcome intrusions, and campaigns promoting abandonment have sometimes led to backlash as they struggle to reconcile cultural tolerance with the conviction that cutting violates universal human rights. Cutting, however, is not necessarily locally pervasive and entrenched. We designed experiments on cultural change that exploited the existence of conflicting attitudes within cutting societies. We produced four entertaining movies that served as experimental treatments in two experiments in Sudan, and we developed an implicit association test to unobtrusively measure attitudes about cutting. The movies depart from the view that cutting is locally pervasive by dramatizing members of an extended family as they confront each other with divergent views about whether the family should continue cutting. The movies significantly improved attitudes towards girls who remain uncut, with one in particular having a relatively persistent effect. These results show that using entertainment to dramatize locally discordant views can provide a basis for applied cultural evolution without accentuating intercultural divisions.

Quantum dynamics of simultaneously measured non-commuting observables


In quantum mechanics, measurements cause wavefunction collapse that yields precise outcomes, whereas for non-commuting observables such as position and momentum Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle limits the intrinsic precision of a state. Although theoretical work has demonstrated that it should be possible to perform simultaneous non-commuting measurements and has revealed the limits on measurement outcomes, only recently has the dynamics of the quantum state been discussed. To realize this unexplored regime, we simultaneously apply two continuous quantum non-demolition probes of non-commuting observables to a superconducting qubit. We implement multiple readout channels by coupling the qubit to multiple modes of a cavity. To control the measurement observables, we implement a ‘single quadrature’ measurement by driving the qubit and applying cavity sidebands with a relative phase that sets the observable. Here, we use this approach to show that the uncertainty principle governs the dynamics of the wavefunction by enforcing a lower bound on the measurement-induced disturbance. Consequently, as we transition from measuring identical to measuring non-commuting observables, the dynamics make a smooth transition from standard wavefunction collapse to localized persistent diffusion and then to isotropic persistent diffusion. Although the evolution of the state differs markedly from that of a conventional measurement, information about both non-commuting observables is extracted by keeping track of the time ordering of the measurement record, enabling quantum state tomography without alternating measurements. Our work creates novel capabilities for quantum control, including rapid state purification, adaptive measurement, measurement-based state steering and continuous quantum error correction. As physical systems often interact continuously with their environment via non-commuting degrees of freedom, our work offers a way to study how notions of contemporary quantum foundations arise in such settings.

Evolution of Hoxa11 regulation in vertebrates is linked to the pentadactyl state


The fin-to-limb transition represents one of the major vertebrate morphological innovations associated with the transition from aquatic to terrestrial life and is an attractive model for gaining insights into the mechanisms of morphological diversity between species. One of the characteristic features of limbs is the presence of digits at their extremities. Although most tetrapods have limbs with five digits (pentadactyl limbs), palaeontological data indicate that digits emerged in lobed fins of early tetrapods, which were polydactylous. How the transition to pentadactyl limbs occurred remains unclear. Here we show that the mutually exclusive expression of the mouse genes Hoxa11 and Hoxa13, which were previously proposed to be involved in the origin of the tetrapod limb, is required for the pentadactyl state. We further demonstrate that the exclusion of Hoxa11 from the Hoxa13 domain relies on an enhancer that drives antisense transcription at the Hoxa11 locus after activation by HOXA13 and HOXD13. Finally, we show that the enhancer that drives antisense transcription of the mouse Hoxa11 gene is absent in zebrafish, which, together with the largely overlapping expression of hoxa11 and hoxa13 genes reported in fish, suggests that this enhancer emerged in the course of the fin-to-limb transition. On the basis of the polydactyly that we observed after expression of Hoxa11 in distal limbs, we propose that the evolution of Hoxa11 regulation contributed to the transition from polydactyl limbs in stem-group tetrapods to pentadactyl limbs in extant tetrapods.

Metal–organic frameworks as selectivity regulators for hydrogenation reactions


Owing to the limited availability of natural sources, the widespread demand of the flavouring, perfume and pharmaceutical industries for unsaturated alcohols is met by producing them from α,β-unsaturated aldehydes, through the selective hydrogenation of the carbon–oxygen group (in preference to the carbon–carbon group). However, developing effective catalysts for this transformation is challenging, because hydrogenation of the carbon–carbon group is thermodynamically favoured. This difficulty is particularly relevant for one major category of heterogeneous catalyst: metal nanoparticles supported on metal oxides. These systems are generally incapable of significantly enhancing the selectivity towards thermodynamically unfavoured reactions, because only the edges of nanoparticles that are in direct contact with the metal-oxide support possess selective catalytic properties; most of the exposed nanoparticle surfaces do not. This has inspired the use of metal–organic frameworks (MOFs) to encapsulate metal nanoparticles within their layers or inside their channels, to influence the activity of the entire nanoparticle surface while maintaining efficient reactant and product transport owing to the porous nature of the material. Here we show that MOFs can also serve as effective selectivity regulators for the hydrogenation of α,β-unsaturated aldehydes. Sandwiching platinum nanoparticles between an inner core and an outer shell composed of an MOF with metal nodes of Fe3+, Cr3+ or both (known as MIL-101; refs 19, 20, 21) results in stable catalysts that convert a range of α,β-unsaturated aldehydes with high efficiency and with significantly enhanced selectivity towards unsaturated alcohols. Calculations reveal that preferential interaction of MOF metal sites with the carbon–oxygen rather than the carbon–carbon group renders hydrogenation of the former by the embedded platinum nanoparticles a thermodynamically favoured reaction. We anticipate that our basic design strategy will allow the development of other selective heterogeneous catalysts for important yet challenging transformations.

Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific


The appearance of people associated with the Lapita culture in the South Pacific around 3,000 years ago marked the beginning of the last major human dispersal to unpopulated lands. However, the relationship of these pioneers to the long-established Papuan people of the New Guinea region is unclear. Here we present genome-wide ancient DNA data from three individuals from Vanuatu (about 3,100–2,700 years before present) and one from Tonga (about 2,700–2,300 years before present), and analyse them with data from 778 present-day East Asians and Oceanians. Today, indigenous people of the South Pacific harbour a mixture of ancestry from Papuans and a population of East Asian origin that no longer exists in unmixed form, but is a match to the ancient individuals. Most analyses have interpreted the minimum of twenty-five per cent Papuan ancestry in the region today as evidence that the first humans to reach Remote Oceania, including Polynesia, were derived from population mixtures near New Guinea, before their further expansion into Remote Oceania. However, our finding that the ancient individuals had little to no Papuan ancestry implies that later human population movements spread Papuan ancestry through the South Pacific after the first peopling of the islands.

Pore architecture of TRIC channels and insights into their gating mechanism


Intracellular Ca2+ signalling processes are fundamental to muscle contraction, neurotransmitter release, cell growth and apoptosis. Release of Ca2+ from the intracellular stores is supported by a series of ion channels in sarcoplasmic or endoplasmic reticulum (SR/ER). Among them, two isoforms of the trimeric intracellular cation (TRIC) channel family, named TRIC-A and TRIC-B, modulate the release of Ca2+ through the ryanodine receptor or inositol triphosphate receptor, and maintain the homeostasis of ions within SR/ER lumen. Genetic ablations or mutations of TRIC channels are associated with hypertension, heart disease, respiratory defects and brittle bone disease. Despite the pivotal function of TRIC channels in Ca2+ signalling, their pore architectures and gating mechanisms remain unknown. Here we present the structures of TRIC-B1 and TRIC-B2 channels from Caenorhabditis elegans in complex with endogenous phosphatidylinositol-4,5-biphosphate (PtdIns(4,5)P2, also known as PIP2) lipid molecules. The TRIC-B1/B2 proteins and PIP2 assemble into a symmetrical homotrimeric complex. Each monomer contains an hourglass-shaped hydrophilic pore contained within a seven-transmembrane-helix domain. Structural and functional analyses unravel the central role of PIP2 in stabilizing the cytoplasmic gate of the ion permeation pathway and reveal a marked Ca2+-induced conformational change in a cytoplasmic loop above the gate. A mechanistic model has been proposed to account for the complex gating mechanism of TRIC channels.

De novo phasing with X-ray laser reveals mosquito larvicide BinAB structure


The structure of the bacterial toxin BinAB, which is used to combat mosquito-borne diseases, reveals pH-sensitive switches and carbohydrate-binding modules that may contribute to the larvicidal function of the toxin.

Atom-at-a-time laser resonance ionization spectroscopy of nobelium


Optical spectroscopy of a primordial isotope has traditionally formed the basis for understanding the atomic structure of an element. Such studies have been conducted for most elements and theoretical modelling can be performed to high precision, taking into account relativistic effects that scale approximately as the square of the atomic number. However, for the transfermium elements (those with atomic numbers greater than 100), the atomic structure is experimentally unknown. These radioactive elements are produced in nuclear fusion reactions at rates of only a few atoms per second at most and must be studied immediately following their production, which has so far precluded their optical spectroscopy. Here we report laser resonance ionization spectroscopy of nobelium (No; atomic number 102) in single-atom-at-a-time quantities, in which we identify the ground-state transition 1S01P1. By combining this result with data from an observed Rydberg series, we obtain an upper limit for the ionization potential of nobelium. These accurate results from direct laser excitations of outer-shell electrons cannot be achieved using state-of-the-art relativistic many-body calculations that include quantum electrodynamic effects, owing to large uncertainties in the modelled transition energies of the complex systems under consideration. Our work opens the door to high-precision measurements of various atomic and nuclear properties of elements heavier than nobelium, and motivates future theoretical work.

Projected land photosynthesis constrained by changes in the seasonal cycle of atmospheric CO2


Uncertainties in the response of vegetation to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations contribute to the large spread in projections of future climate change. Climate–carbon cycle models generally agree that elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations will enhance terrestrial gross primary productivity (GPP). However, the magnitude of this CO2 fertilization effect varies from a 20 per cent to a 60 per cent increase in GPP for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations in model studies. Here we demonstrate emergent constraints on large-scale CO2 fertilization using observed changes in the amplitude of the atmospheric CO2 seasonal cycle that are thought to be the result of increasing terrestrial GPP. Our comparison of atmospheric CO2 measurements from Point Barrow in Alaska and Cape Kumukahi in Hawaii with historical simulations of the latest climate–carbon cycle models demonstrates that the increase in the amplitude of the CO2 seasonal cycle at both measurement sites is consistent with increasing annual mean GPP, driven in part by climate warming, but with differences in CO2 fertilization controlling the spread among the model trends. As a result, the relationship between the amplitude of the CO2 seasonal cycle and the magnitude of CO2 fertilization of GPP is almost linear across the entire ensemble of models. When combined with the observed trends in the seasonal CO2 amplitude, these relationships lead to consistent emergent constraints on the CO2 fertilization of GPP. Overall, we estimate a GPP increase of 37 ± 9 per cent for high-latitude ecosystems and 32 ± 9 per cent for extratropical ecosystems under a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations on the basis of the Point Barrow and Cape Kumukahi records, respectively.

Particle physics: Search for neutrinoless double-β decay


Neutrinos are much lighter than the other constituents of matter. One explanation for this could be that neutrinos are their own antiparticles and belong to a new class of 'Majorana' particle. An experiment sets strong constraints on this scenario.

Human migration: Climate and the peopling of the world


The human dispersal out of Africa that populated the world was probably paced by climate changes. This is the inference drawn from computer modelling of climate variability during the time of early human migration.

Observed glacier and volatile distribution on Pluto from atmosphere–topography processes


Pluto has a variety of surface frosts and landforms as well as a complex atmosphere. There is ongoing geological activity related to the massive Sputnik Planum glacier, mostly made of nitrogen (N2) ice mixed with solid carbon monoxide and methane, covering the 4-kilometre-deep, 1,000-kilometre-wide basin of Sputnik Planumnear the anti-Charon point. The glacier has been suggested to arise from a source region connected to the deep interior, or from a sink collecting the volatiles released planetwide. Thin deposits of N2 frost, however, were also detected at mid-northern latitudes and methane ice was observed to cover most of Pluto except for the darker, frost-free equatorial regions. Here we report numerical simulations of the evolution of N2, methane and carbon monoxide on Pluto over thousands of years. The model predicts N2 ice accumulation in the deepest low-latitude basin and the threefold increase in atmospheric pressure that has been observed to occur since 1988. This points to atmospheric–topographic processes as the origin of Sputnik Planum’s N2 glacier. The same simulations also reproduce the observed quantities of volatiles in the atmosphere and show frosts of methane, and sometimes N2, that seasonally cover the mid- and high latitudes, explaining the bright northern polar cap reported in the 1990sand the observed ice distribution in 2015. The model also predicts that most of these seasonal frosts should disappear in the next decade.

Cancer: Acidic shield puts a chink in p53's armour


Underactivity of the transcription factor p53 can lead to tumour development. The discovery that the SET protein binds to and inhibits p53 points to a way to unleash the tumour suppressor's activity.

The formation of Charon’s red poles from seasonally cold-trapped volatiles


A unique feature of Pluto’s large satellite Charon is its dark red northern polar cap. Similar colours on Pluto’s surface have been attributed to tholin-like organic macromolecules produced by energetic radiation processing of hydrocarbons. The polar location on Charon implicates the temperature extremes that result from Charon’s high obliquity and long seasons in the production of this material. The escape of Pluto’s atmosphere provides a potential feedstock for a complex chemistry. Gas from Pluto that is transiently cold-trapped and processed at Charon’s winter pole was proposed as an explanation for the dark coloration on the basis of an image of Charon’s northern hemisphere, but not modelled quantitatively. Here we report images of the southern hemisphere illuminated by Pluto-shine and also images taken during the approach phase that show the northern polar cap over a range of longitudes. We model the surface thermal environment on Charon and the supply and temporary cold-trapping of material escaping from Pluto, as well as the photolytic processing of this material into more complex and less volatile molecules while cold-trapped. The model results are consistent with the proposed mechanism for producing the observed colour pattern on Charon.

Potassium isotopic evidence for a high-energy giant impact origin of the Moon


The Earth–Moon system has unique chemical and isotopic signatures compared with other planetary bodies; any successful model for the origin of this system therefore has to satisfy these chemical and isotopic constraints. The Moon is substantially depleted in volatile elements such as potassium compared with the Earth and the bulk solar composition, and it has long been thought to be the result of a catastrophic Moon-forming giant impact event. Volatile-element-depleted bodies such as the Moon were expected to be enriched in heavy potassium isotopes during the loss of volatiles; however such enrichment was never found. Here we report new high-precision potassium isotope data for the Earth, the Moon and chondritic meteorites. We found that the lunar rocks are significantly (>2σ) enriched in the heavy isotopes of potassium compared to the Earth and chondrites (by around 0.4 parts per thousand). The enrichment of the heavy isotope of potassium in lunar rocks compared with those of the Earth and chondrites can be best explained as the result of the incomplete condensation of a bulk silicate Earth vapour at an ambient pressure that is higher than 10 bar. We used these coupled constraints of the chemical loss and isotopic fractionation of K to compare two recent dynamic models that were used to explain the identical non-mass-dependent isotope composition of the Earth and the Moon. Our K isotope result is inconsistent with the low-energy disk equilibration model, but supports the high-energy, high-angular-momentum giant impact model for the origin of the Moon. High-precision potassium isotope data can also be used as a ‘palaeo-barometer’ to reveal the physical conditions during the Moon-forming event.

Evolutionary biology: To mimicry and back again


Deadly coral snakes warn predators through striking red-black banding. New data confirm that many harmless snakes have evolved to resemble coral snakes, and suggest that the evolution of this Batesian mimicry is not always a one-way street.