The big scientific breakthroughs of 2020
From COVID-19 vaccines to tiny living robots
Vaccines at warp speed
Only one breakthrough truly mattered this year: the creation of a COVID-19 shot. The previous record for the fastest vaccine development, for mumps, was four years. But on Dec. 8 — 11 months after research began — a 90-year-old British grandmother became the first person in the world to receive Pfizer's new COVID vaccine outside of a clinical study. Like Moderna's new shot, which was approved in the U.S. last week, the two-dose vaccine is about 95 percent effective and uses an entirely new type of technology. In traditional vaccines, a patient is injected with dead viral material, which triggers the body to produce antibodies. Pfizer's and Moderna's shot use a synthetic version of coronavirus genetic material that leads human cells to produce copies of the virus' outer spike proteins. Those proteins spark an immune defense. Pfizer and Moderna together hope to deliver enough doses for 20 million people by Dec. 31. "The light at the end of the tunnel is getting a little brighter," says infectious-disease expert Dr. William Schaffner.
Solving a protein puzzle
An artificial intelligence program appears to have solved one of the biggest mysteries in biology. The "protein-folding problem" is important because most biological processes — such as how insulin controls blood-sugar levels or how antibodies fight coronaviruses — are driven by proteins. How the strings of amino acids that make up a protein twist and fold into a 3D shape determines its function. Trying to establish how proteins get their origami-like structure can take years of lab work. But AlphaFold, an artificial intelligence program developed by the Google-owned DeepMind lab, can do it in a matter of hours with a remarkable level of accuracy. Bioinformatics professor Janet Thornton says protein-folding was "a problem that I was beginning to think would not get solved in my lifetime."
Building living 'bots
American scientists have created the world's first living robots. The millimeter-wide "xenobots" were formed by scraping live stem cells from frog embryos and leaving them to incubate. The resulting skin and heart cells were then reshaped and combined into "body forms" designed by a supercomputer to complete certain tasks — walking, for example, or swimming. The pulsing heart cells serve as a miniature engine that powers xenobots until their energy reserves run out — after about 10 days at present. Study co-leader Michael Levin says these "living, programmable organisms" might one day carry out tasks such as removing plaque from artery walls.
Signs of life on Venus?
Scientists have found hints that life might exist on Venus — a notoriously inhospitable planet where surface temperatures hit 860 degrees Fahrenheit. Using powerful telescopes, researchers detected traces of the gas phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere. On Earth, that gas is produced by human industry — and by microbial organisms that live in oxygen-free environments. Phosphine is quick to react and disappear, so something must be replenishing its supply on Venus. Researchers say it's not implausible that single-celled life might survive in the Venusian atmosphere, floating in a region where liquid water exists. Study co-author Sara Seager says the only way to confirm this theory is by "actually going to Venus."
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.