10 science breakthroughs of 2021 that you need to know about
News Desk || shiningbd
Science news of 2021 was dominated by Covid-19 with good reason and the next year may also likely be the same. But the pandemic wasn’t all that science was dealing with in 2021. The year saw many interesting and important science breakthroughs, many of which we will be hearing more about in the coming years.
As we bring in the new year amidst rising cases of Omicron, let us take a step back and see how far we have come in the field of science with these 10 science news and science breakthroughs of 2021:
1. The Covid-19 vaccine
The development of the Covid-19 vaccines is actually part of the science news of 2020, but it is in 2021 that they were rolled out.
The Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines were rolled out for emergency use for adults in record time last December, followed by Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine in February 2021.
The Covid-19 vaccine has now become available for children as young as five.
The fastest vaccine development-to-deployment period before this was the Mumps vaccine in the 1960s and that took four years.
2. Malaria vaccine for kids
Malaria is still one of the most dangerous diseases on the planet that kills around half a million people annually. Over half of those are children under the age of five.
The World Health Organization (WHO) in October approved the world’s first malaria vaccine for kids, which is also the first vaccine against any parasitic disease.
Mosquirix—the brand name of the drug—cost more than USD 750 million to develop and test since 1987.
The new vaccine fights the deadliest of five malaria pathogens and is delivered in a series of four injections. This science breakthrough could prevent around 5.3 million malaria cases every year.
3. Launch of the James Webb Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most powerful space telescope ever developed, launched in December.
It will travel nearly 1 million miles over 30 days to a stable spot in space, and then take another six months to unfold its instruments, align, and calibrate.
The work to create the telescope started in 1996 by NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency, and it cost around USD 500 million. The launch was delayed several times.
For the next several decades, it will track Earth’s orbit around the sun. Previously unseeable parts of the universe would now be observable and it would be able to do things the Hubble Space Telescope cannot.
Humans will soon be able to see possible signs of live on other planet, watch the birth of stars, and discover how early galaxies formed.
4. New findings on Mars
Three missions arrived at Mars in February 2021, taking advantage of the Earth-Mars orbit alignment, something that happens once every 26 months.
The United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter aimed to study the past and present climate of Mars from orbit by monitoring the Red Planet’s daily, monthly and yearly changes.
The Chinese National Space Agency’s (CNSA) Tianwen-1 surveyed the surface of Mars from orbit and then set down the Zhurong rover in the large Utopia Planitia on Mars. The goal was to test China’s ability to move around on the Martian surface.
NASA’s Perseverance lander, which is based on the design of the Curiosity but comes with a suite of instruments to drill and store rock samples, will spend the next few years travelling across Jezero Crater.
It will collect up to 43 rock samples which will them be sent back in caches in the Sample Return mission which is still being planned.
One of the biggest science breakthroughs on Mars is the test to see if we can fly through the Martian atmosphere.
The Ingenuity Helicopter, which came along with Perseverance as a technology demonstration mission, is a small drone-like rotocraft. It has now travelled more than 2 km.
Perseverance’s journey is being helped by the Ingenuity Helicopter which is scouting ahead and highlighting potential hazards or objects of interest with its equipped camera.
This year on Mars, the UAE learned how to orbit, China learned how to land, and NASA learned how to fly.
5. Closer than ever to finding ET
Cambridge researchers in a paper in August speculated about the existence of a world falling into the category of Hycean planets which could support life.
The world they spoke about would be around 2.6 times the size of Earth, with a Hydrogen-rich atmosphere, hot and covered with oceans. Humans wouldn’t be able to survive in such a world but other creatures would.
Since it is easier to detect biosignatures from Hycean planets (such as methyl chloride and dimethyl sulphide) than from Earth-like planets (such as oxygen, methane, etc.) it is possible to detect and confirm extra-terrestrial life in the next two or three tears.
A lot of the exoplanets we already know of would belong to the class of Hycean planets.
6. CRISPR gene editing injected into blood
The concept of gene editing is rapidly taking strides and in June 2021, the CRISPR Cas-9 gene editor was injected directly into the bloodstream of a patient with a rare inherited disease.
Usually, cells are extracted from a patient and CISPR works on them in a lab setting before the edited genes are returned into the body.
It is a time-consuming and expensive process and often, the patients often need to undergo chemotherapy afterwards.
This case concerning the previously untreatable condition of transthyretin amyloidosis was quick and successful, and the treatment even saw a decline in the destructive proteins that build up in the tissues and organs of someone with this disease.
7. New species of early humans
Ninety years ago, a skull fossil was discovered in China and then hidden by a family until a farmer gave it to a university museum in 2018.
Researchers from China analysed the skill using uranium series dating, and X-ray fluorescence and declared it a new species of early humans.
The skull had a large cranium which can hold a big brain, a thick brow and almost square eye sockets these differentiate it from the other Homo species.
Homo longi or ‘dragon man’, as this new species has been named, was earlier suggested to be a later Pleistocene human, joining Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
However, the debate still continues about whether it should be called a new species, and we need to wait for ore fossils to fill the holes in the early human history.
A related science breakthrough of 2021 involves Neanderthals palaeontologists from Madrid who created 3D-models of the ear structures of Neanderthals claimed that they possibly had the capacity to speak and hear just like Homo sapiens, the modern human species.
Our concepts about early human species have certainly been shifting as we uncover more data,
8. Most powerful quantum processor yet
Quantum computers can do in seconds what the best supercomputers of today would take several days or weeks to process.
Quantum computer uses the laws of quantum physics for incredible processing capabilities which can revolutionise meteorology, cybersecurity, manufacturing, national defense, and much more.
In November 2021, IBM launched its 127-qubit Eagle. This is the most powerful quantum processor yet.
Later, the company Quantinuum launched a cloud-based cybersecurity platform called Quantum Origin, the world’s first commercial product built from quantum computing.
Quantum computing is now set to evolve rapidly.
9. Humans are affecting animal evolution
Humans have been affecting animal evolution directly and indirectly. Studies have shown a sharp rise in tuskless African elephants after years of poaching activities.
This is because poachers killed so many elephants with giant tusks during the Mozambican Civil War from 1977 to 1992, that it was the females without huge tusks that were more likely to pass on their genes.
Before the war, around 20 percent were tuskless and now around half of the female elephants are tuskless.
Apart from killing animals, one of the indirect ways animal evolution is being impacted thanks to humans is how they are dealing with rising temperatures caused by global warming.
A study in Trends in Ecology and Evolution found that bats have been growing bigger wings and rabbits growing longer ears both of these are likely to dissipate more heat into the surrounding air.
Science Advances published more evidence on these lines. Most likely as a result of rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns, 77 species of birds from a remote patch in the Amazon rainforest were observed to weight lesser and have longer wings over a period of 40 years.
10. Artificial titanium heart developed
Scientists have been trying to build an artificial heart for over 50 years now. Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) take an estimated 17.9 million lives around the world each year and are the leading causes of deaths globally.
An Australian research team has created BiVACOR, a titanium heart that utilises spinning disc technology.
It doesn’t work exactly like a human heart but tries to surpass evolution with a better mechanism to pump blood around the human body. It has a circular pump suspended between magnets in an artificial heart made of titanium.
A full human trial is yet to be conducted. Till now, it has been tested only temporarily on heart transplant patients and has undergone animal trials.