The biggest science news of 2020

The pandemic’s toll on the research community

Given the collective focus of the globe on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, we dedicate a separate post to what we’ve heard from scientists this year – their struggles and achievements, frustrations and joys.

Aside from research into SARS-CoV-2 itself, the pandemic has had a huge impact on the scientific community. Tragically, the virus claimed the lives of a number of researchers. Lynika Strozier, whose “hands of gold” were able to extract DNA from small amounts of raw material and who identified numerous new species, was only 35 years old when she died of COVID-19. Paleobotanist Brian Axsmith died of COVID-19 at the age of 57. Paleontologist Robert Carroll, former Stanford University president Donald Kennedy, microbiologist Paul Matewele, former Babraham Institute director Michael Wakelam, HIV researcher Gita Ramjee, and vascular biologist Stephen Schwartz were also among the 1.6 million People who died from the disease this year.

While a considerable number of the researchers had difficulties getting their work done at times this year, others were laid off or on leave. MINT women seem to have affected their productivity the most. Academic employment opportunities have dwindled and do not seem to have recovered to the level of recruitment seen in recent years.

However, a survey of academics found that the community is resilient in the face of bans and other restrictions. The amazing successes in developing drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and research techniques related to the coronavirus are testament to the creativity and commitment of the researchers. Scientists managed to keep their science alive by turning their homes into wet laboratories and finding new ways to be productive. Scientific conferences have gone from being canceled or postponed to completely redesigned virtual events with enhanced inclusivity and fewer CO2 emissions from travel.

The world was still spinning and burning

With all eyes on SARS-CoV-2, it was easy to overlook other major events caused by Mother Nature. Wildfires burned up and down the west coast of the United States. In California, flames damaged damaged field sites and threatened astronomical observatories. Across the world, in Australia, efforts to support endangered koala populations may have suffered irreparably. “There has been so much research advancement in recent years to improve the health of these koala populations,” said Natasha Speight, researcher and veterinarian of koala diseases at the University of Adelaide, South Australia The scientist in January. “It really is a setback to have lost so many to those bushfires.”

In a park in Argentina where a long-term study with 20 groups of howler monkeys had been carried out for decades, at least five groups were killed in fires this fall. “With all of these groups we found, I knew everything about them. I knew who the son, the daughter, the mother was. The first [few days] I cried the whole time, ”said Martin Kowalewski, a primate ecologist and director of the Estación Biológica Corrientes field station The scientist. The fires were believed to have been started purposely by ranchers to stimulate grassland growth, but they then burned out of control and decimated the reserve where the monkeys lived.

Mitochondria in circulation

Electron micrograph of mitochondria isolated from healthy human blood plasma


In February, scientists reported that they found working mitochondria in people’s blood. Previous studies had shown that mitochondrial DNA could be found in the circulation and the organelles could sometimes be released from the cells in response to damage, but whole, breathing organelles in the blood of healthy individuals was a novel observation.

“The whole thing surprises me,” said Joel Riley, who studies how mitochondria can stimulate inflammation at the University of Glasgow and was not part of the study The scientist back then. “We know that mitochondria can be thrown out of cells by extracellular vesicles [when they are damaged], but whole mitochondria – that’s pretty cool. “The next step is to find out what the organelles are doing.

More human salivary glands

A 3-D reconstruction of the newly discovered tubar gland (yellow; channels light blue) from histological slides (right). The cartilage of the torus tubarius is dark blue in color and the muscle is pink.

Humans continue to be full of anatomical surprises, and this year researchers have added a number of salivary glands in the neck to our familiar components, which they called tubarial glands. The tissue hidden behind the pharynx likely went unnoticed as it is difficult to reach during surgery. It was discovered using a combination of positron emission tomography (PET) and computed tomography (CT), which uses a radioactive tracer that binds to a prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA). Usually PSMA PET / CT is used to detect prostate cancer, but lead scientist Wouter Vogel, a radiation oncologist at the Dutch Cancer Institute, said The scientist in October: “This scan is extremely sensitive to the salivary glands. So we can see more than ever before. “

Inclusivity gains in MINT

While this is a persistent problem, a lack of equity for STEM caught renewed attention in 2020 as scholars advocated inclusion, anti-racist action, and awareness of the forces that turn people away from under-represented groups. Black in X, a collection of initiatives aimed at raising awareness among black scientists in various fields and supporting their careers, was born after a racist incident in May between a black bird watcher and a white woman who did not obey a dog leash law in New York City’s Central Park. Black in Neuro, Black in Astro, Black in Chem and other groups have since organized virtual events and digital networks. “Now that we can finally see each other, we can support one another,” said Ariangela Kozik, co-organizer of Black in Micro, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan The scientist.

That year, several academic journals also realized that their name change policies could harm transgender people. Cell Press, for example, has passed a new policy that allows authors to change the name of their publications. It is still required, with the consent of the author, to make a correction that may contain more information than the authors might want to provide. Theresa Tanenbaum, a computer scientist at the University of California at Irvine who worked on name change guidelines for journals, reported The scientist She advocates that publishers keep a private record of name changes that are only published when necessary, for example in a legal dispute.

Alzheimer’s blood test

The first blood test for blood biomarkers that indicate Alzheimer’s disease became available to doctors in October. C.2N Diagnostics’ test measures the ratio of two isoforms of the amyloid-β protein Aβ42 and Aβ40 and the presence of isoforms of apolipoprotein E (ApoE) related to the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. “If you asked me [five or ten] If there was ever a blood test for Alzheimer’s years ago, I would have been very skeptical, ”said Howard Fillit, executive director and chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, which invested in C.2Ns development of the test tells The scientist. “The fact that this is out now is just amazing.”

Neanderthal DNA in Africans

Since the interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals occurred thousands of years ago in Eurasia, geneticists had assumed that individuals of African descent would not have much Neanderthal DNA in their genome. Not so. In a study published in January, the researchers compared African genomes to the Neanderthal reference genome and found much more overlap than expected – around 17 megabases.

This is still only a third of what is found in the genome of people of European and Asian ancestry, and likely represents the migration of people from Europe and Asia who took the genetic legacy of mixing their ancestors with Neanderthals with them to Africa.

Janet Kelso, a computer biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who was not involved in the study, said The scientist at the time: “What is surprising here is the amount. It’s actually a bigger percentage than I think people imagined. ”

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