2019: The Year in Science

A pick of top ten breakthroughs in science
Last Updated 27 December 2019, 19:30 IST

In line with Newton’s famous quote, “standing on the shoulders of giants”, this year, science has made considerable advances, building on feats of the past. Discoveries, insights and inventions in astronomy, biology, medicine, paleontology and physics marked the year...

1. Detailing the Denisovans

This year revealed some fantastic facts about our ancient ancestors, the Denisovans, who lived about 100,000 years ago. So far, we knew about them through scrap fossils from the Denisova cave in Siberia, Russia. This year, researchers found a fossilised jawbone in the Tibetian plateau, which on DNA analysis showed that it belonged to the Denisovans, who were the region’s first hominin inhabitants. It was also believed earlier that Denisovans were closely related to Neanderthals than to present-day humans. On the contrary, genomic analysis of the fossils from the Denisova cave showed that they were closer to humans than to Neanderthals. But, how did our ancestors look like? Based on patterns of chemical changes in their DNA, researchers have reconstructed the anatomy of Denisovans. The findings reveal that some traits, like a sloping forehead, long face and large pelvis resemble Neanderthals, while others, like a large dental arch and wide skull, are unique. Based on these findings, they even reconstructed the face of a teenage Denisovan girl.

2. An elusive cure to Ebola

Ebola, a deadly viral disease that shook the African continent, affects humans and other primates, and a cure for this disease has eluded science so far. Although an experimental vaccine is being developed, without a therapeutic cure, those infected are doomed to die. This year, two drugs that were tested during an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may have hopes as they dramatically increased patients’ chances of survival. The two drugs, named REGN-EB3 and mAb-114, contain a cocktail of antibodies that are injected into the bloodstream of those infected. These drugs have shown a success rate of about 90 per cent , bringing hopes to those battered by the disease.

3. The first image of a black hole

We did not even know how black holes, the most dense objects of our Universe, looked. This year, scientists used a combination of telescope observations around the globe to reveal the first ever photograph of a supermassive black hole present at the heart of the distant galaxy Messier 87 in the Virgo constellation. The image, which captures the shadow of the black hole, shows a black hole that is 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass of 6.5 billion times that of the Sun. Researchers believe that this epic photograph opens a new window into the study of black holes, their event horizons, and gravity.

4. Conquering quantum computing

Physicists and engineers at Google claim to have developed the first functional quantum computer that can perform a set of computations in 200 seconds, which would have otherwise taken the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years! This quantum computer has a 54-qubit processor, named Sycamore, comprised of quantum logic gates.

5. Beating malnutrition in gut

While it was long known that microbes in our gut played a vital role in our health and well-being, two studies published this year showed how they could be used to address malnutrition — a condition that affects millions of children. The researchers analysed the types of microbes present in the gut of healthy and malnourished children and focused on boosting crucial gut microbes in the children using affordable, culturally acceptable foods.

6. Pushing gene-editing

After tasting success and controversies last year for genetically editing babies, researchers in China this year reported to have cloned five genetically edited macaques for research purposes for the first time. These monkeys have reduced sleep, increased movements in the night, increased anxiety and depression, and schizophrenia-like behaviours. Although it raises ethical questions, the researchers believe that cloned monkeys could replace the wild monkeys used in laboratories today. In the UK, scientists used gene therapy to arrest a form of age-related blindness and in the US, CRISPR, the gene-editing software, was used to treat cancer.

7. The rampant loss of world’s ice

With the rising global temperature, ice on the Earth’s surface is melting at a rapid rate. In Greenland, the ice sheets are melting seven times faster than they did in the 90s. Greenland has lost 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992, a quantity — enough to push global sea levels up by 10.6 millimetres. In Antartica, studies have detected significant changes in the thickness of the floating ice shelves, which hold the land-based ice in place. As a result, there could be more ice moving from the land into the sea. Similar loss of ice has been reported in the Alps and the Himalayas. The rising sea levels are estimated to displace 300 million people all over the world, affecting coastal cities and their livelihoods.

8. Taking a closer look at the Moon

This year, China’s National Space Administration achieved the first soft landing on the far side of the Moon with its Chang’e 4 mission. This mission will attempt to determine the age and composition of an unexplored region of the Moon. India launched its second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, to map and study the variations in the lunar surface composition, and the location and abundance of water.

9. Biodiversity on the brink of extinction

This year, an extensive report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that of the estimated eight million species of animals and plants on the planet, about a million face the threat of extinction, many within decades. About 40 per cent of amphibians, a third of marine life and about 10 per cent of the insects are at the brink of extinction. The report mentions that changes in land and sea use, exploitation of organisms; climate change, pollution and invasive alien species as primary reasons behind this situation.

10. Reading dinosaurs’ end game

Dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago when an asteroid crashed into Earth at the Chicxulub crater in Mexico. This year, scientists detailed fallouts of the impact that resulted in a mass extinction by examining the topography of the centre of the crater. When the asteroid struck, the melt rocks and breccia sat at the bottom of the crater within minutes and over a few hours, another 90 metres were deposited. There was also a tsunami and a wildfire that followed, which emitted sulphur aerosols that cooled the earth and blocked much of the sunlight.

(Published 27 December 2019, 19:30 IST)

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