cover art for The billion years missing from Earth’s history

Nature Podcast

The billion years missing from Earth’s history

A new theory to explain missing geological time, the end of leaded petrol, and the ancient humans of Arabia.

In this episode:


00:29 Unpicking the Great Unconformity

For more than 150 years, geologists have been aware of ‘missing’ layers of rock from the Earth’s geological record. Up to one billion years appear to have been erased in what’s known as the Great Unconformity. Many theories to explain this have been proposed, and now a new one suggests that the Great Unconformity may have in fact been a series of smaller events.

BBC Future: The strange race to track down a missing billion years

05:23 The era of leaded petrol is over

In July, Algeria became the final country to ban the sale of leaded petrol, meaning that the fuel is unavailable to buy legally anywhere on Earth. However despite this milestone, the toxic effects of lead petrol pollution will linger for many years to come.

Chemistry World: Leaded petrol is finally phased out worldwide

08:26 The ancient humans who lived in a wetter Arabia

While much of modern day Arabia is covered by deserts, new research suggests that hundreds of thousands of years ago conditions were much wetter for periods on the peninsula. These lusher periods may have made the area a key migratory crossroads for ancient humans.

Research Article: Groucutt et al.

News and Views: Traces of a series of human dispersals through Arabia

Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.

More episodes

View all episodes

  • How AI could improve robotics, the cockroach’s origins, and promethium spills its secrets

    In this episode:00:25 What the rise of AI language models means for robotsCompanies are melding artificial intelligence with robotics, in an effort to catapult both to new heights. They hope that by incorporating the algorithms that power chatbots it will give robots more common-sense knowledge and let them tackle a wide range of tasks. However, while impressive demonstrations of AI-powered robots exist, many researchers say there is a long road to actual deployment, and that safety and reliability need to be considered.News Feature: The AI revolution is coming to robots: how will it change them?16:09 How the cockroach became a ubiquitous pestGenetic research suggests that although the German cockroach (Blattella germanica) spread around the world from a population in Europe, its origins were actually in South Asia. By comparing genomes from cockroaches collected around the globe, a team could identify when and where different populations might have been established. They show that the insect pest likely began to spread east from South Asia around 390 years ago with the rise of European colonialism and the emergence of international trading companies, before hitching a ride into Europe and then spreading across the globe.Nature News: The origin of the cockroach: how a notorious pest conquered the world20:26: Rare element inserted into chemical 'complex' for the first timePromethium is one of the rarest and most mysterious elements in the periodic table. Now, some eight decades after its discovery, researchers have managed to bind this radioactive element to other molecules to make a chemical ‘complex’. This feat will allow chemists to learn more about the properties of promethium filling a long-standing gap in the textbooks.Nature News: Element from the periodic table’s far reaches coaxed into elusive compoundSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • How mathematician Freeman Hrabowski opened doors for Black scientists

    Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s, mathematician Freeman Hrabowski was moved to join the civil rights moment after hearing Martin Luther King Jr speak. Even as a child, he saw the desperate need to make change. He would go on to do just that — at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, one of the leading pathways to success for Black students in STEM subjects in the United States.Freeman is the subject of the first in a new series of Q&As in Nature celebrating ‘Changemakers’ in science — individuals who fight racism and champion inclusion. He spoke to us about his about his life, work and legacy.Career Q&A: I had my white colleagues walk in a Black student’s shoes for a day
  • Audio long read: How does ChatGPT ‘think’? Psychology and neuroscience crack open AI large language models

    AIs are often described as 'black boxes' with researchers unable to to figure out how they 'think'. To better understand these often inscrutable systems, some scientists are borrowing from psychology and neuroscience to design tools to reverse-engineer them, which they hope will lead to the design of safer, more efficient AIs.This is an audio version of our Feature: How does ChatGPT ‘think’? Psychology and neuroscience crack open AI large language models
  • Fentanyl addiction: the brain pathways behind the opioid crisis

    00:45 The neuroscience of fentanyl addictionResearch in mice has shown that fentanyl addiction is the result of two brain circuits working in tandem, rather than a single neural pathway as had been previously thought. One circuit underlies the positive feelings this powerful drug elicits, which the other was responsible for the intense withdrawal when it is taken away. Opioid addiction leads to tens of thousands of deaths each year, and the team hopes that this work will help in the development of drugs that are less addictive.Research Article: Chaudun et al.09:16 Research HighlightsHow an ‘assembloid’ could transform how scientists study drug delivery to the brain, and an edible gel that prevents and treats alcohol intoxication in mice.Research Highlight: Organoids merge to model the blood–brain barrierResearch Highlight: How cheesemaking could cook up an antidote for alcohol excess11:36: Briefing ChatWhy babies are taking the South Korean government to court, and Europe’s efforts to send a nuclear-powered heater to Mars.Nature News: Why babies in South Korea are suing the governmentNature News: Mars rover mission will use pioneering nuclear power sourceSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • Lizard-inspired building design could save lives

    In this episode:00:45 A recyclable 3D printing resin from an unusual sourceMany 3D printers create objects using liquid resins that turn into robust solids when exposed to light. But many of these are derived from petrochemicals that are difficult to recycle. To overcome this a team has developed a new type of resin, which they’ve made using a bodybuilding supplement called lipoic acid. Their resin can be printed, recycled and reused multiple times, which they hope could in future contribute to reducing waste associated with 3D printing.Research Article: Machado et al10:05 Research HighlightsHow housing shortages can drive a tiny parrot resort to kill, and the genes that gave cauliflower its curls.Research Highlight: These parrots go on killing sprees over real-estate shortagesResearch Highlight: How the cauliflower got its curlicues12:27 To learn how to make safe structures researchers... destroyed a buildingMany buildings are designed to prevent collapse by redistributing weight following an initial failure. However this relies on extensive structural connectedness that can result in an entire building being pulled down. To prevent this, researchers took a new approach inspired by the ability of some lizards to shed their tails. They used this to develop a modular system, which they tested by building — and destroying — a two storey structure. Their method stopped an initial failure from spreading, preventing a total collapse. The team hope this finding will help prevent catastrophic collapses, reducing loss of life in aid rescue efforts.Research Article: Makoond et al.Nature video: Controlled failure: The building designed to limit catastrophe23:20: Briefing ChatAn AI algorithm discovers 27,500 new asteroids, and an exquisitely-accurate map of a human brain section reveals cells with previously undiscovered features.New York Times: Killer Asteroid Hunters Spot 27,500 Overlooked Space RocksNature News: Cubic millimetre of brain mapped in spectacular detailSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.Subscribe to Nature Briefing: AI and robotics
  • Alphafold 3.0: the AI protein predictor gets an upgrade

    In this episode:00:45 A nuclear timekeeper that could transform fundamental-physics research.Nuclear clocks — based on tiny shifts in energy in an atomic nucleus — could be even more accurate and stable than other advanced timekeeping systems, but have been difficult to make. Now, a team of researchers have made a breakthrough in the development of these clocks, identifying the correct frequency of laser light required to make this energy transition happen. Ultimately it’s hoped that physicists could use nuclear clocks to probe the fundamental forces that hold atoms together.News: Laser breakthrough paves the way for ultra precise ‘nuclear clock’10:34 Research HighlightsWhy life on other planets may come in purple, brown or orange, and a magnetic fluid that could change shape inside the body.Research Highlight: Never mind little green men: life on other planets might be purpleResearch Highlight: A magnetic liquid makes for an injectable sensor in living tissue13:48 AlphaFold gets an upgradeDeepmind’s AlphaFold has revolutionised research by making it simple to predict the 3D structures of proteins, but it has lacked the ability to predict situations where a protein is bound to another molecule. Now, the AI has been upgraded to AlphaFold 3 and can accurately predict protein-molecule complexes containing DNA, RNA and more. Whilst the new version is restricted to non-commercial use, researchers are excited by its greater range of predictive abilities and the prospect of speedier drug discovery.News: Major AlphaFold upgrade offers huge boost for drug discoveryResearch Article: Abramson et al.Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • Talking about sex and gender doesn't need to be toxic

    Ever since scientific enquiry began, people have focused mainly on men, or if studies involve animals, on male mice, male rats or whatever it may be. And this has led to gaps in scientists’ understanding of how diseases, and responses to treatment, and many other things might vary between people of different sexes and genders.These days, mainly thanks to big funders like the NIH introducing new guidelines and mandates, a lot more scientists are thinking about sex and, where appropriate, gender. And this has led to a whole host of discoveries.But all this research is going on within a sociopolitical climate that’s becoming increasingly hostile and polarized, particularly in relation to gender identity. And in some cases, science is being weaponized to push agendas, creating confusion and fear.It is clear that sex and gender exist beyond a simple binary. This is widely accepted by scientists and it is not something we will be debating in this podcast. But this whole area is full of complexity, and there are many discussions which need to be had around funding, inclusivity or research practices.To try to lessen fear, and encourage clearer, less divisive thinking, we have asked three contributors to a special series of opinion pieces on sex and gender to come together and thrash out how exactly scientists can fill in years of neglected research – and move forward with exploring the differences between individuals in a way that is responsible, inclusive and beneficial to as many people as possible.Read the full collection: Sex and gender in science
  • Dad's microbiome can affect offsprings' health — in mice

    In this episode:00:46 Using genomics to explain geographic differences in cancer riskThe risk of developing cancer can vary hugely depending on geographic region, but it’s not exactly clear why. To get a better idea, a team has compared the genomes of kidney cancers taken from people around the globe. They reveal a link between geographical locations and specific genetic mutations, suggesting that there are as-yet unknown environmental or chemical exposures in different locations. They hope this work will inform public health efforts to identify and reduce potential causes of cancer.Research Article: Senkin et al.News and Views: Genomics reveal unknown mutation-promoting agents at global sites07:46 Research HighlightsResearch reveals that the extinct ‘sabre-toothed salmon’ actually had tusks, and a common fungus that can clean up both heavy-metal and organic pollutants.Research Highlight: This giant extinct salmon had tusks like a warthogResearch Highlight: Garden-variety fungus is an expert at environmental clean-ups09:55 How disrupting a male mouse’s microbiome affects its offspringDisruption of the gut microbiota has been linked to issues with multiple organs. Now a team show disruption can even affect offspring. Male mice given antibiotics targeting gut microbes showed changes to their testes and sperm, which lead to their offspring having a higher probability of severe growth issues and premature death. Although it’s unknown whether a similar effect would be seen in humans, it suggests that factors other than genetics play a role in intergenerational disease susceptibility.Research article: Argaw-Denboba et al.News and Views: Dad’s gut microbes matter for pregnancy health and baby’s growth17:23 Briefing ChatAn updated atlas of the Moon that was a decade in the making, and using AI to design new gene-editing systems.Nature News: China's Moon atlas is the most detailed ever madeNature News: ‘ChatGPT for CRISPR’ creates new gene-editing toolsSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • Audio long read: Why loneliness is bad for your health

    Many people around the world feel lonely. Chronic loneliness is known to have far-reaching health effects and has been linked to multiple conditions and even early death. But the mechanisms through which feeling alone can lead to poor health is a puzzle. Now, researchers are looking at neurons in the hopes that they may help explain why health issues arise when social needs go unmet.This is an audio version of our Feature Why loneliness is bad for your health