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(Left to right): Robert Nicholls;; ETH-Bibliothek/Wikimedia Commons

Top stories: Yellowstone’s supervolcano, new CRISPR tools, and the odd growth strategy of ancient trees

Novel CRISPR-derived ‘base editors’ surgically alter DNA or RNA, offering new ways to fix mutations

Since the start of the CRISPR craze 5 years ago, scientists have raced to invent ever-more-versatile or efficient variations of this powerful tool, which vastly simplifies the editing of DNA. Two studies published this week broaden CRISPR’s reach further still, honing a subtler approach to modifying genetic material called base editing. One study extends a strategy for editing DNA, whereas the other breaks new ground by base editing its molecular cousin, RNA.

Swiss university dissolves astronomy institute after misconduct allegations

In August, ETH Zurich in Switzerland quietly dissolved its institute for astronomy. This week it launched an official investigation into allegations that led to its closure: that a leading professor there mistreated graduate students for more than a decade, while the administration ignored complaints against her. The professor’s spouse had been head of the institute. Both are now on sabbatical and have said they can’t comment on the situation, but several colleagues and former students have come to their defense.

The world’s first trees grew by splitting their guts

Scientists have discovered some of the best-preserved specimens of the world’s first trees in a remote region of China. At up to 12 meters tall, these spindly species were topped by a clump of erect branches vaguely resembling modern palm trees and lived a whopping 393 million to 372 million years ago. But the biggest surprise is how they got so big in the first place. By analyzing the fossilized trees, the researchers found that they were made of an interconnected web of woody strands that split itself apart as the trunk grew taller.

Fresh human brains yield delicious data

One man’s neuron is another man’s knowledge. That’s the stance of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which this week released the first open-access database of live human brain cells. It contains data on the electrical properties of about 300 cortical neurons taken from 36 patients and 3D reconstructions of 100 of those cells, plus gene expression data from 16,000 neurons from three other patients. The new data should help researchers pin down what makes human brains unique from other species—and what makes for a healthy versus diseased brain.

This dinosaur’s striking markings reveals where it lived

Three well-preserved specimens of Sinosauropteryx—a turkey-sized, meat-eating dino that lived in China about 130 million years ago—suggest the animal had a dark stripe around its eyes, like modern-day racoons, researchers report this week. By taking a closer look at the feathers’ color patterns, scientists have deduced more details not only about the dinosaur’s bandit mask, but also its dark back and sides and white belly. Such patterns are classic examples of counter-shading camouflage, which counteracts shadows, and suggest that Sinosauropteryx probably lived in open areas—not in forests. 

New test of electron’s roundness could help explain universe’s matter/antimatter imbalance

When it comes to measuring how round the electron is, physicists hate uncertainty. Much depends on the most precise measurement possible, including a potential answer to a major scientific puzzle: why the universe contains any matter at all. In a series of ever-more-sensitive experiments over the past 30 years, researchers have established that if the shape of the electron has any distortion at all, the bulge must be smaller than 1 thousand trillion trillionths of a millimeter (10-27 mm). Now, researchers have shown what they describe as a “radically different” approach that probes electrons inside larger charged particles.

Yellowstone’s massive volcano could erupt more frequently than scientists thought

Some 630,000 years ago, the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming recorded its last catastrophic eruption, forming a caldera that nearly spans the park’s width and belching a thick layer of ash across North America. But rather than a single event, Yellowstone may have erupted twice in a span of 270 years, suggests new evidence from mud cores discovered off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

*Correction, 8 November, 10:37 a.m.: The Sinosauropteryx item has been revised to provide the main evidence that the dinosaur lived in open areas.