Top ten most important scientific breakthroughs of 2020

(ORDO NEWS) — Science magazine has selected the ten most outstanding achievements of science in 2020. Vesti.Ru has already introduced many of them to its readers. Follow the links to find detailed material on these breakthroughs.

Stop the virus

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Scientists are testing more than 50 variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus vaccine.

The most notable event of the outgoing year was undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic. Humanity threw its best minds, a lot of forces and resources to fight the new threat. Never before has any infection been the subject of so many studies carried out in such a short time.

For example, as of December 10, 2020, 162 variants of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine were under development, and 52 were already undergoing clinical trials.

Three variants of the vaccine have been created in our country. The Gamaleya National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology has developed Sputnik V, which is already being used for large-scale vaccination of the population. Also, post-registration trials of the “EpiVacCorona” vaccine, created by specialists of the State Scientific Center of Virology and Biotechnology “Vector”, have started. Finally, already in February 2021, it is planned to register the drug created at the Chumakov Federal Research and Development Center for Immunobiological Preparations of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for use in the United States and several other countries. Almost on the heels of it is the drug company Moderna. The results of trials of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine and the drug from the Chinese company Sinopharm look promising.

In addition, scientists are working hard to create drugs that help treat patients with COVID-19 and interfere with the transmission of a virus that is new to humanity.


Blood Matters

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The new technique was tested in two patients with severe genetic blood diseases.

Another major breakthrough was an experimental treatment for two previously incurable blood diseases using CRISPR genome editing technology.

We talked about this study in detail back in 2019, before its completion. In 2020, the experiment was completed and showed impressive results.

Biologists have helped patients suffering from beta thalassemia and sickle cell disease. Both diseases are associated with defects in red blood cells – blood cells that carry oxygen.

Scientists have isolated stem cells from the blood of patients, which are the early precursors of blood cells. The researchers edited the DNA of these cells to correct the mutations leading to beta thalassemia and sickle cell disease. At the same time, with the help of chemotherapy, doctors destroyed defective progenitor cells in the patient’s body.

After that, the corrected stem cells were returned to the blood of the volunteers. They took the vacant space, multiplied and began to produce normal red blood cells. In this way, both diseases were cured.


Equality for scientists

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Field workers spend a lot of time in poorly populated areas where they are particularly vulnerable to aggression.

Scientists considered a breakthrough in science to be an event that had nothing to do with discoveries and developments, but important for many scientists. It is a union of black academics in the fight against racism.

This story began in May 2020 in New York. Ornithologist Christian Cooper, who studied birds there, met a white stranger with a dog. The scientist politely asked the woman to bind the animal. In response, she called the police and said that she was being threatened by a black man.

Video footage of this incident went viral on the web. The video sparked a storm of discussion about the bias people face because of their skin color. Is it worth adding that for scientists working in the field, such aggression from random onlookers can be simply dangerous?

This incident led to the hashtag #BlackBirdersWeek (Black Birdwatchers Week) on social media. It was followed by similar hashtags dedicated to scientists from different fields, from physics to neuroscience. Black researchers began to unite in virtual communities to work together against racism.


It will be hot

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Climatologists have clarified the extent of global warming.

The overwhelming majority of climatologists long ago agreed that global warming is happening right now, and its cause is industrial carbon dioxide emissions. But how much warmer would the Earth be if CO2 levels doubled from pre-industrial times?

A few decades ago, a variety of forecasts were made: from 1.5 ° C to 4.5 ° C. For a system as sensitive as climate, the difference is enormous. The first scenario will lead to rather mild consequences, and the second – to simply catastrophic.

In 2020, scientists have significantly improved the forecast. Now they are confident that the Earth will get warmer by at least 2.6 ° C, and at most 3.9 ° C. Numerous studies carried out over the past decades, and the accumulated data on changes in the average temperature of the planet, helped to narrow the range.

The researchers emphasize that even the mildest of the remaining scenarios leads to the flooding of coastal cities and the displacement of millions of people.

All of this will happen when carbon dioxide levels have doubled from pre-industrial times. And if humanity does not take decisive measures, this mark will be passed by 2060.


Love Galaxy

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For the first time, astronomers have discovered a fast radio burst in the Milky Way.

In 2020, astronomers have solved an intriguing mystery. They figured out where the fast radio bursts come from. This is the name for short bursts of radio waves coming from space, the nature of which has long remained unknown.

In the past year, observers for the first time recorded such an outbreak that occurred in the Milky Way. Best of all, they’ve identified the source of the signal. It turned out to be a magnetar – a neutron star with an abnormally strong magnetic field. By the way, these objects are the most powerful magnets in the universe.


Features of pre-national hunting

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The picture found shows eight hunters and six victims.

At the very end of 2019, archaeologists reported an amazing discovery. They discovered the world’s oldest hunting scene. Science experts decided not to be formalists and included this striking achievement in the list of 2020 breakthroughs.

A piece of prehistoric art was discovered in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It was completed 44 thousand years ago. For comparison: the earliest examples of cave painting in Europe are less than 21 thousand years old.

The painting depicts eight hunters. They are half-humans, half-animals. These monsters are armed with spears and ropes and pursue two warty pigs and four dwarf buffaloes.


Fold the puzzle

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Green shows the three-dimensional structure of the protein determined in the experiment, and blue – predicted by the AlphaFold system. They almost perfectly match each other.

The outgoing year was marked by a major breakthrough in biology. Artificial intelligence has solved a problem that has not been given to scientists for half a century. It is about predicting the three-dimensional structure of a protein molecule.

Why is it so important for humanity? Because proteins are the basis of all living things. It is not only the building material of our bodies, but also regulators that control almost all processes in a living cell. It is not surprising that these substances are the subject of keen interest of biologists.

Moreover, the protein molecule can be very complex, because it is a long chain of amino acid links. Each protein has an individual sequence of these links. It encodes all the properties of the molecule, including its three-dimensional form. The latter is very important: it determines what kind of work the protein can do in the cell.

For about 50 years, biologists have been trying to learn how to predict the spatial structure of a protein molecule from its amino acid sequence. But only in 2020 this problem was solved by the artificial neural network AlphaFold, created by DeepMind. Artificial intelligence predicted the structure of a molecule with an accuracy comparable to the size of an atom.

Now the structure of proteins is determined in a long and expensive way, and sometimes this is completely impossible. Any help in this matter opens up very pleasant prospects for science and mankind.


Where to hide HIV

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The HIV DNA strand (blue) is embedded in human DNA.

In 2020, biologists figured out how some people manage to resist HIV infection.

Recall that this pathogen stores hereditary information in RNA. But he knows how to rewrite it on DNA and embed this DNA strand into human chromosomes. Such foreign DNA fragments are called proviruses.

When a human cell reads commands encoded in its own genome, it can randomly read the provirus DNA as well. And the latter instructs the cell to synthesize the virus.

Due to proviruses, HIV is almost impossible to cure completely. Antiviral drugs destroy the pathogen in the blood, but the cells, reading the commands of “strangers”, synthesize new copies of the virus. As a result, the patient is forced to take medications for life.

However, about 0.5% of the 38 million people living with HIV are the exception to this rule. They do not take antivirus products and still remain healthy for years.

The authors of the new study figured out where this superpower comes from. It turned out that 45% of the proviruses in the “overlords of HIV” are located in “junk” DNA regions that are devoid of working genes and therefore are usually not read. Ordinary HIV-infected people have only 17% of proviruses in such a “safe haven”.

Scientists hope to understand the mechanisms that displace proviruses into “garbage” regions of the genome and use them to treat HIV infection.


No resistance

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Physicists have fulfilled an old dream.

In 2020, another old dream came true, this time for physicists. Experimenters have obtained a superconducting state of matter at room temperature.

Let us explain that in this state the electrical resistance of the material is strictly zero. This means that the current energy is not lost in the wires. This property of the conductor could provide significant energy savings.

The classic way to submerge matter in a superconducting state is to cool it down to near absolute zero. But the idea of ​​flooding power lines with liquid helium does not seem like a smart proposition to save money. Therefore, physicists have been searching for ways to minimize cooling for about a hundred years.

In 2020, scientists finally hit a milestone: they got a superconducting state at room temperature. True, this required a pressure of 2.6 million atmospheres, so there is no need to expect a revolution in the energy sector in the near future. However, the researchers hope that further improvements and new discoveries will open the way for truly practical “room” superconductors.


What do birds think about?

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The experiment showed that black crows have the rudiments of consciousness.

In 2020, two scientific groups at once found out that birds are smarter than they seem.

The basis of human intelligence is the new cortex (neocortex). It consists of several horizontal layers, one above the other. In this case, the overlying cells are connected by their processes with the underlying neurons and form vertical columns.

Until recently, it was believed that birds have nothing like this. However, in the past year, neuroscientists have discovered a similar structure in the forebrain of pigeons and barn owls. Thus, the birds turned out to be more similar to humans in brain structure than arrogant humanity thought.

The second article was devoted to the work of the brain of the black ravens, known for their outstanding intelligence. The experimenters taught birds to turn their heads when they saw a sequence of flashing lights on the monitor. At this time, electrodes implanted in the ravens’ brains recorded the activity of neurons.

Scientists have recorded curious features of the brain of crows. They may mean that the animal does not simply respond to a stimulus like an automaton. In a sense, it is aware of what it sees. It turns out that crows have the rudiments of consciousness.

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