17th December 2020
2020: A Year in Science
2020 has been a year unlike any other with the COVID-19 pandemic grinding the world to a stop. However, this has not stopped science from making a variety of new discoveries which could change the lives of many. With the development of novel therapeutics, climate change events and recent prominence of CRISPR, science has never been more at the forefront of global news. Therefore, the two of us got together to look at some of the scientific breakthroughs that have happened this year and write this article to highlight the stories that we have found most interesting. You might agree with us, you might not! Feel free to let us know what you think.
Artificial intelligence and cancer
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK and approximately one in eight women are diagnosed with it in their lifetime. There is a good chance of recovery if the cancer is detected at an early stage. Mammography screening is crucial for this; however, the high rates of false positive and negative results makes this difficult. Researchers have now demonstrated an artificial intelligence system, based on Google DeepMind, capable of detecting breast cancer with better efficiency and accuracy.
The oldest material on Earth
Astronomers found that the oldest material on Earth is actually older than the Earth itself! The Murchison meteorite particles arrived on Earth via an asteroid that eventually landed near Murchison, Victoria, Australia in 1969. This interstellar dust has been found to be seven billion years old, a considerable amount older than the Earth which is 4.54 billion years old.
Scientists created a single molecule capable of absorbing the entire visible spectrum from sunlight. Solar energy can then be used in the production of hydrogen as a clean fuel alternative. This molecule harnesses more than 50% more solar energy than current solar cells. This is good news in the fight against climate change as it allows a way for humans to transition away from the use of fossils fuels and towards cleaner energy.
It is impossible to look back on 2020 without mentioning the Coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on all areas of life and society, not only from a health perspective but also from an economic and environmental viewpoint. Early research of the SARS-CoV-2 virus provided crucial insight on virology, transmission, pathophysiology and epidemiology. There is still a long way to go before we get back to normal and there are still long-term questions that need answering. However, the combination of this research has led to development of treatments and ultimately saved lives.
Man’s best friend
Researchers found that dogs have been companions to humans for longer than previously thought! Evidence suggested that the earliest domestication of dogs occurred sometime in the middle or upper Palaeolithic during the Last Glacial Period. Fossil canid teeth in the Czech Republic dated from 28,500 years before the present found distinct morphological differences between “protodogs” and “wolves”. It was put forward that this resulted from differing diets, with “protodogs” potentially having higher bone consumption due to eating human scraps. Thus, indicating early domestication of dogs.
Australian bushfire research
The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season was unlike anything that has been seen before. A study published in Nature found that 21% of Australia’s forests (excluding Tasmania) burnt down during the catastrophe. The Nature articles emphasises the fact that this bushfire “greatly exceeds previous fires both within Australia and globally” in the last 20 years. Unlike similar bushfires that have occurred previously, this one happened in densely populated areas rather than remote regions, such as in Siberia. Consequently, many were impacted by the smoke, not just wildlife. The severe intensity and the spread of the fire across Australia also differs it from previous bushfires. The devastation has led to domestic and global demands for increased climate change measures.
A significant rise in anxiety and depression in the population in the UK
A group of psychologists, political scientists and mental health researchers from the universities of Sheffield and Ulster surveyed 2000 people in the UK above 18 years old. The participants were asked about their current circumstances, their understanding of COVID-19, what they were doing in an effort to cope and the state of their mental health following the government-imposed lockdown on 23rd March. The study found that the percentage of people reporting anxiety increased from 17% to 36%, similarly the percentage of people reporting depression increased from 16% to 38%. A stark reminder of the toll COVID-19 has taken on the mental health of people across the country.
Universe expansion is not uniform
A new study from NASA and ESA is challenging the principals of cosmology. Scientists conducting the research suggest that the Universe may not be expanding at the same rate in all directions. This research suggests that the widely accepted isotropy hypothesis could be wrong. The understanding was that that after the Big Bang the universe expanded in all directions at the same speed, now this may no longer be the case at all.
Keeping an eye on your health
Researchers are developing a smartphone app which takes an image of a person’s inner eyelids to measure blood haemoglobin levels, rather than using a haemoglobinometer or a standard blood test. This high precision technique without needing to draw blood could help decrease the need the need for in-person visits. This would aid in monitoring critical care patients and improve care in low- and middle-income countries for the detection of health issues such as anaemia.
A temporary drop on daily CO2 levels during the peak of COVID-19 confinement measures
A study lead by the University of East Anglia published in Nature reported decrease in daily global CO2 emissions by 17%- that is equivalent to 17 million tonnes of CO2. The study compared levels in early April against the same time in 2019, with the majority of the decrease due to a reduction in surface transport, such as car journeys. The increase in the use of residential buildings due to people working from home did very little to offset the reduction in emissions from other sectors.
Urban fox adaptations
New research has shown that urban red foxes are becoming morphologically distinct from their rural counterparts. The skull morphology of urban foxes is becoming more divergent, similar to domestic dogs, as they adapt to life in cities. This highlights the macroevolution that occurs during domestication.
“Sustainable” palm oil and deforestation
An unprecedented historical study spanning 30 years has shown that deforestation in the tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo strongly correlates with the development of certified “sustainable” palm oil. Highly detailed satellite imagery showed that “sustainable” palm oil plantations put biodiverse tropical forests at risk and replace the habitats of endangered mammals, including Bornean orangutans and Sumatran tigers, rhinos and elephants.
Another frozen planet
Research published in Nature Geoscience reported that valley networks on Mars’s surface resulted from water melting under glacial ice rather than free-flowing rivers. It was found that only three of the 66 networks came from rivers, whereas 22 were a consequence of water melting. This research indicates that the red planet may have been cold and ice rather than a “warm and wet ancient Mars”.
The search for a better planet
Astronomers identifies 24 “superhabitable” planets out of a known 4500. Using a list of criteria which included a greater surface temperature and size than Earth, better stars and the presence of water, it is thought that complex life can thrive more easily on these planets.
Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for their work on the hepatitis C virus
The trio consisting of two American and one British scientist won the prize for their ground-breaking work on the virus that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis C kills 400,000 people a year, but it wasn’t discovered until the 1980’s through a joint effort of Alter, Houghton and Rice. Their discovery proved vital and since then our understanding of the virus has grown significantly to the point that we are now close to its elimination.
Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their work on black holes
One half of the prize was awarded to Penrose for the discovery that “black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”, with the other half shared between Genzel and Ghez for the discovery of “a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”. Together these discoveries were ground-breaking, showing that blackholes can exist within Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their work on genome editing
Probably our favourite story of the year due to our specific interest in the area, Charpentier and Doudna were jointly awarded the prize for their discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Following transfection into a plant, animal or microorganism cell this complex can then be used to change their DNA with very high precision. This discovery has revolutionised life sciences, contributing to new cancer therapies and making the dream of curing inherited diseases a little closer to reality.
The first successful phase III trial of a possible COVID-19 vaccine
Pfizer, in collaboration with BioNtech were the first to announce a successful trial of their COVID-19 vaccine. This vaccine uses technology never used before in a vaccine: mRNA, with data showing 95% protection from the COVID-19 virus within 28 days of the first dose. One issue with this vaccine is the extreme temperatures that it needs to be stored at, around -70 degrees. This news was closely followed by announcements by Moderna and Oxford University, Moderna again with a mRNA based vaccine with Oxford presenting data on a more traditional inoculation. The world hopes an effective vaccine could see a return to normal life on the horizon.
UK approves COVID-19 vaccine
The UK became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine with the NHS vaccinating patients in the biggest immunisation programme in history. This vaccine is the fastest to go from idea to reality taking only 10 months rather than the usual 10 year, thus setting us on course to return to life as we once knew it.
It is sufficient to say that 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year in which we have been fortunate enough to see the best of humanity. It has been a difficult year and people have pulled together in the endeavour to make this world a better place. Scientists have worked tirelessly in the pursuit of knowledge to discover more about the universe, to make an impact on climate change and to save lives. Therefore, we can remain optimistic for a brighter and healthier future. For one reason or another, 2020 is certainly a year to remember and we can look forward to the possibilities 2021 will bring us.
What do you think about the stories we have highlighted? Do you have a favourite? Or maybe you think we have missed something? Why don’t you let us know what you think!