Scientific achievements of 2020
December 31, 2020 - JANUARY: Chinese health authorities and the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the discovery of a novel coronavirus. Over the weekend of January 11-12, the Chinese authorities shared the full sequence of the coronavirus genome.
In December, United Kingdom regulators authorised a Covid-19 vaccine created by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech for emergency use.
The vaccine has been authorised far more quickly than any other in history. Its lightning development outpaced the 10 to 20 years it usually takes to develop these types of medicines.
JULY: Three times in July, rockets blasted off and set course for Mars. A trio of nations -- the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- sent robotic emissaries to the Red Planet, hoping to start new chapters of exploration there.
The U.S. is sending its fifth rover, NASA’s most capable ever, in the hope of finding evidence of past life on Mars. The Perseverance rover will also collect rock samples.
China aims to build on its lunar-exploration successes by taking one of its rovers to Mars for the first time. And the UAE will be launching an orbiter — the first interplanetary mission by any Arab nation.
The missions have taken advantage of celestial mechanics, in which Earth’s orbit catches up with Mars’ orbit every 2.2 years -- the Hohmann orbit -- and the planets briefly line-up. All three missions will reach the Red Planet in February.
AUGUST: Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla and Space-X, presented Neuralink. It is a small electronic disk that sits in a cavity in the skull, under the scalp. Trailing from it are nearly a hundred tiny filaments -- much smaller in diameter than a human hair -- containing thousands of electrodes to conduct electrical signals. These serve as electronic connections between the brain and the device.
Musk announced a $27 million investment in Neuralink in 2016, intending to create brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). Data collected by the electrodes can be transmitted from the disk to other hardware via BlueTooth technology.
Research into BMI started in the 1970s at the University of California. The focus of BMI research and development continues to be primarily on neuroprosthetics applications that can help restore damaged sight, hearing, and movement.
Neuralink’s BMI could enable a patient with Parkinson’s disease, for example, to control their movements better. The eventual goal would be to communicate with a computer via thought alone.
OCTOBER: Since astronomers confirmed the presence of planets beyond our solar system, so-called exoplanets, humanity has wondered how many could harbour life.
According to new research using data from NASA’s retired planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, about half the stars similar in temperature to our Sun could have a rocky planet in their “goldilocks” or habitable zone.
Our galaxy holds an estimated 300 million of these potentially habitable worlds -- capable of supporting liquid water on their surface -- according to a study led by researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center, published in The Astronomical Journal.
OCTOBER: A first-ever comparison of bird song before and during the springtime Covid lockdown reveals that birds can respond when we silence the cacophony of humans traffic and construction noise.
They sang more softly -- and the songs were faster, with a more romantic range of pitch, according to a study, published in the journal Science.
“Nature takes over as soon as people get out of the way,” said lead researcher Elizabeth Derryberry, an animal communication expert at the University of Tennessee.
Derryberry’s partners found that this spring’s sparrows, exposed to less background noise, exhibited a more luxurious vocal performance.
NOVEMBER: An artificial intelligence (AI) network developed by Google’s British-based AI offshoot DeepMind has made a massive leap in solving one of biology’s grandest challenges -- determining a protein’s 3D shape from its amino-acid sequence.
DeepMind’s program, called AlphaFold, outperformed 100 other teams in a biennial protein-structure prediction challenge called CASP, short for Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction.
Proteins are the building blocks of life, responsible for most of what happens inside cells. How a string of different amino acids creates the folds of its eventual shape determines how a protein works.
For decades, laboratory experiments have been the leading way to solve the protein-folding problem. The first complete structures of proteins were determined in the 1950s using X-ray crystallography. By predicting the unique structural shapes of different proteins, scientists can better understand what they do and how they cause disease.
“This is a big deal,” says John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland. Moult co-founded CASP in 1994 to improve computational methods for accurately predicting protein structures. “In some sense the problem is solved.”
- About Half of Sun-Like Stars Could Host Rocky, Potentially Habitable Planets (NASA)
- COVID-19 vaccines: breaking record times to first-in-human trials (Nature)
- Singing in a silent spring: Birds respond to a half-century soundscape reversion during the COVID-19 shutdown (Science)
- DeepMind’s AI makes a gigantic leap in solving protein structures (Nature)
- Amino acids -- protein letters (The bumbling biochemist)