A healthy research environment is fundamental to good science. But it is an aspect that is rarely discussed. That’s partly because a lab’s ‘health’ is complex and difficult to assess — it is the product of a whole host of factors, such as inclusivity, communication, expectations and training. In this special issue, Nature explores how the working environment shapes research quality and morale — and what can be done to strengthen the research enterprise. From our survey of more than 3,000 researchers to first-hand experiences of how to nurture and improve research culture, we unpick the issues that can derail a lab and that can help make it the best place to work.
In 1993, a paper published in Nature showed that an isolated population of Edith’s checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha) in a meadow in Carson City, Nevada, was starting to evolve a preference for the non-native plant Plantago lanceolata, which was introduced to the region through cattle ranching. Twenty-five years on, in this week’s issue, Michael Singer and Camille Parmesan show how the butterfly population ended up evolving complete dependence on the exotic plant. As a result, after cattle ranching ceased in 2005 and Plantago became briefly embedded in cool, lush grasses, the butterfly population went extinct. In 2013–4, a natural recolonization returned the insects to their traditional host, and their diet to its starting point. The findings illustrate the potentially lethal eco-evolutionary traps that human activities can unwittingly create for natural populations, and the importance of taking these traps into account in the conservation of human-modified habitats.
A key limiting factor for successful liver transplants is the availability and quality of donor organs. In this issue, David Nasralla, Constantin Coussios, Peter Friend and colleagues report the outcomes from a trial investigating a new method of liver preservation prior to transplantation. Normally, a donor liver is preserved in ice, but this can cause damage to the organ. The researchers tackled this problem by deploying a technique called normothermic machine perfusion (NMP). This maintains the donor organs at body temperature and takes deoxygenated blood from the liver into a machine where it is oxygenated and bolstered with crucial nutrients before being pumped back into the liver. The technique allowed more donor livers to be transplanted having been preserved up to 54% longer and, despite this, reduced graft injury by 50% compared with organs preserved on ice. The team hopes that NMP could increase the number of viable organs available for transplant operations.
Carbon atoms with four different carbon substituents — quaternary stereocentres — are key structural motifs in biologically active small organic molecules. These molecules can have distinct mirror images and synthesizing only the correct configuration can be a challenge. In this issue Eric Jacobsen and his colleagues reveal how they selectively produced quaternary stereocentres from a racemic mixture using a reaction mechanism that usually cannot be controlled. The unimolecular nucleophilic substitution (SN1) reaction is ubiquitous in organic chemistry textbooks. It allows an incoming nucleophile to replace one of the existing substituents on a carbon atom via a planar cationic intermediate (featured on the cover). But the nature of the mechanism means that the nucleophile can approach the reactive carbon atom from either face meaning that it is usually impossible to add the incoming group selectively. By using a chiral hydrogen-bonding catalyst and a Lewis acid Jacobsen and his team have broken that rule allowing the SN1 reaction to progress in a stereocontrolled fashion.
Advances in nanofabrication have enabled studies of chirality to extend from conventional ‘mirror image’ molecules seen in organic chemistry to three-dimensional metallic nanostructures. Similar to their organic counterparts these metallic structures display optical activity with each mirror-image form interacting differently with circularly polarized visible light. This optical activity is rooted in plasmonic effects which derive from the way the structures’ morphology affects oscillations of electrons in the material. In this issue Ki Tae Nam and his colleagues demonstrate a solution-based method for synthesizing homogenous highly chiral gold nanoparticles and controlling their respective chiral properties. The researchers induce chirality by growing the gold in the presence of cysteine or cysteine-based peptides which enantioselectively bind to high-index crystallographic planes of the gold seeds. The process could lead to new opportunities in chiral sensing and active colour displays.
The cover shows the Alpine rock jasmine (Androsace alpina) in the scree of Piz Lagalb in the eastern Alps. Mountains are experiencing some of the highest rates of warming under anthropogenic climate change. In this issue, Manuel Steinbauer and his colleagues examine how plant species richness has changed over the past 145 years on 302 mountain summits across Europe. Using vegetation survey data, the researchers find that richness increased strongly on the vast majority of Europe’s summits over this period. They note, however, that the rate of increase has accelerated over time, with five times as much species enrichment occurring in the past decade compared with fifty years ago. Their analysis reveals a positive correlation between the magnitude of the increase in richness and the rate of warming, suggesting that climate-induced biotic change is accelerating even in remote places on Earth.
The cover depicts a scanning electron microscope image of quantum-well infrared photodetectors created from a metamaterial array of metallic resonators. Technologies for the detection of infrared radiation in the long-wavelength range (8-12 micrometres) exist, but devices that are both very fast and sensitive require low-temperature operation, which limits their applications. In this issue, Daniele Palaferri and his collaborators show how photonic metamaterial ideas combined with the high speed of quantum-well infrared photodetectors leads to an ultrasensitive coherent detection, similar to that developed for radio waves: heterodyne detection. This enhanced sensitivity for the detection of long-wavelength infrared radiation at room temperature potentially opens up a range of applications, from thermal imaging and environmental remote sensing to coherent free-space communications. Cover image: Daniele Palaferri & Stephane Suffit/University Paris-Diderot
The dark caves that blind Mexican cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) call home is an extreme environment in which food is scarce. As a result, the fish lead a famine-and-feast way life that has led them to adapt in a remarkable way, as Nicolas Rohner, Cliff Tabin and their colleagues reveal in this week's issue. The cavefish carry a mutation in the insulin receptor that would cause severe type 2 diabetes in humans. The resulting high blood-glucose levels seem to cause no ill effects in the fish, which are healthy and have a normal lifespan. The authors speculate that the fish have evolved compensatory mechanisms in their regulation of glucose that allow them to survive in their challenging environment. Cover image: Paulo Oliveira/Alamy