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New Scientific Discoveries: A Recap of 2021

12th January 2022 - 0 comments

Written by Rose Layton, PhD.

COVID-19 dominated the headlines in 2021 and somewhat diverted our attention away from other exciting new scientific discoveries. Last year delivered many interesting, important, and sometimes strange scientific breakthroughs. And, as we all look forward to the new year, it seems fitting to bring them into the limelight.  

From the discovery of exoplanets, woolly mammoths and space hurricanes to gargantuan leaps in healthcare and drug discovery, let’s explore some of the new scientific discoveries that 2021 delivered. 

Watch This Space  

Usurping the headlines from COVID-19 on a number of occasions was our continued exploration of space. 2021 served up a plethora of newly discovered exoplanets; including the youngest exoplanet ever identified1, rare rocky planets that could harbour extra-terrestrial life2, and possibly the first exoplanet to be detected outside of our galaxy3.  

Closer to home, rogue planets freely wandering the Milky Way have been identified. These nomadic planets aren’t tied to the gravitational pull of a star but stealthily roam the cosmos, mostly undetected since they emit virtually no light. But, by analysing data collected over 20 years from several telescopes, researchers shone new light on at least 70 new rogue plants4.  

Even closer to Earth, scientists revealed the existence of a ‘space hurricane’5. This monstrous, 1000 km wide, swirling mass of plasma hovers hundreds of kilometres above the North Pole – raining electrons. Although originally recorded back in 2014, last year a team of researchers used 3D magnetospheric monitoring to create an image of the space hurricane and ultimately, prove the previously supposed existence of this phenomenon in the upper atmosphere of a planet.  

Finally, there were a number of landmark voyages into space; including NASA’s perseverance rover on Mars and the very first powered, controlled flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. These exciting missions promise to keep our exploration of the universe in the headlines in 2022 and beyond – so watch this space! 

Going Down in History 

Bringing us straight back down to Earth is the abundance of research aimed at discovering the secrets of the past. Until a mere 66 million years ago dinosaurs ruled the lands – that is until an asteroid came hurtling towards the Earth signalling the end of their 180-million-year reign. Or did it? 

In fact, researchers are actually still learning about the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event. Last year, researchers suggested that the downfall of the dinosaurs began approximately 10 million years before the asteroid hit. By examining a dataset developed from 1,600 fossils of 247 dinosaur species, the group suggested that global climate change – coupled with an herbivorous diversity drop – contributed to a gradual decline of dinosaurs6. The asteroid just finished the job!  

What truly happened all those millions of years ago is not entirely resolved – partially due to the patchiness of the fossil record. But with more than 45 new dinosaur species discovered each year since 2003, it is likely the picture will become clearer. Indeed, even with the pandemic curbing palaeontologists’ ability to explore new terrain, some interesting dinosaur fossils were still unearthed.  

Take the discovery of the oldest known ankylosaur fossil, for example. This bizarre specimen reveals a novel morphology of armoured dinosaurs where armour plates, directly fused to the ribs, protrude from the dinosaur’s skin as giant spikes7. This physiology has never been seen in vertebrates before. Or, take a look at Ceratosuchops inferodios, found on Isle of Wight in the U.K. and described in Scientific Reports in September8. Its name translates to “horned, crocodile-faced hell heron”; an appropriate name when you consider its predatory nature, riverbank dwelling, and 26-foot-long size!  

At much finer scales, researchers are using DNA to glean insights into the past. In fact, 2021 delivered the oldest genomic data recovered to date. From the teeth of three mammoths, two of which are more than 1 million years old, DNA was successfully extracted and sequenced9. Not only did the analysis reveal the existence of an unknown type of mammoth that roamed Siberia, but it shed light on the genetic cold adaptations in the iconic woolly mammoths – such as genes involved in hair growth, circadian rhythm, thermal sensation and white and brown fat deposits. 

The world is at a loss 

While the influence of climate change on dinosaur extinction may still be up for debate, there’s little denying its current impact on the planet and its species. By now, we are all aware of global warming. Its mention often conjures up dramatic images of huge blocks of ice calving off glaciers, creating monstrous waves as they plummet into the sea. And, the data only adds to the drama.  

In the most comprehensive and accurate analysis to date, a team of scientists from ETH Zurich studied the entirety of the world’s glaciers; all 217,175 of them10. Among the many shocking numbers this study produced, was the fact that, on average, 267 gigatonnes of ice was lost from the world’s glaciers between 2000 and 2019. This equates to an amount that could submerge the entire surface area of Switzerland under six metres of water – every single year11.  

In line with diminishing glaciers, is the rapid decline of some of the world’s most important species. Near the top of that list are bees; the most important pollinator of our food crops. In a study published in early 2021, it is estimated that 25% of known bee species have vanished from public records over the last 30 years12. Even more shockingly, it has been calculated that open-ocean shark and ray populations have shrunk by 71% with more than three-quarters of the remaining species threatened13.  

While these results are sobering, they do highlight the increasing comprehensiveness of our datasets. More complete datasets coupled with improved analysis can lead to a better understanding of the issues at hand and ultimately, help develop mitigating strategies. 

Advances in Healthcare & Technology 

Painting a more optimistic picture is some of the rapid advancements in healthcare seen in 2021. It’s been an important year for everything from artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to mRNA vaccines – and not even the COVID kind!  

Although mRNA vaccines have taken centre stage in the fight against COVID-19, waiting in the wings are a whole host of other mRNA vaccines. From herpes simplex virus14 and HIV15 right through to the seasonal flu16, the exploration of mRNA vaccines for various infectious diseases got well underway in 2021.  

Find out more about mRNA vaccines 

In addition, AlphaFold, an AI network developed by DeepMind, hit the 2020 headlines for its ability to accurately predict protein structures from their amino acid sequence. This simple explanation may mislead you to overlook its importance but it has since been touted as possibly the most significant development in AI. The ability to accurately predict protein structures without the need for laborious and notoriously problematic lab-based methods, promises to revolutionise scientific discovery and drug development.  

So, what’s this got to do with 2021? Well, in 2021, Deep Mind’s second generation of the AlphaFold algorithm was put to good use. In an impressive example, AlphaFold 2 was used to generate protein structures for almost all human proteins (99%) – a big improvement on the 35% of human proteins with associated (and often incomplete) structures17.  

Get Set for 2022 

COVID-19’s negative impact on the world is undeniable however, it does serve to highlight the importance of science. And, even in the midst of a pandemic, science has continued to prosper.  

In the case of healthcare, COVID-19 has even served to accelerate development outside of its own realm. mRNA vaccines are a clear example of this, where the unprecedented speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were developed, demonstrates its promise for other infectious diseases. Indeed, BioNTech – co-developer of the first COVID-19 vaccine – has announced its aim to develop the first mRNA-based vaccine for malaria in 2022. 

At the same time, with trends such as big data, AI, and space exploration reaching new heights, it is exciting time for science. With new scientific discoveries such as these, we’re bound to see monumental shifts in science and research well into 2022 and beyond.  


References  

1. Gaidos, E. et al. Zodiacal Exoplanets in Time (ZEIT) XII: A Directly-Imaged Planetary-Mass Companion to a Young Taurus M Dwarf Star. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 000, 1–19 (2021). 

2. Demangeon, O. D. S. et al. Warm terrestrial planet with half the mass of Venus transiting a nearby star. Astron. Astrophys. 653, A41 (2021). 

3. Di Stefano, R. et al. A possible planet candidate in an external galaxy detected through X-ray transit. Nat. Astron. 2021 512 5, 1297–1307 (2021). 

4. Miret-Roig, N. et al. A rich population of free-floating planets in the Upper Scorpius young stellar association. Nat. Astron. 2022 1–9 (2021) doi:10.1038/s41550-021-01513-x. 

5. Zhang, Q. H. et al. A space hurricane over the Earth’s polar ionosphere. Nat. Commun. 2021 121 12, 1–10 (2021). 

6. Condamine, F. L., Guinot, G., Benton, M. J. & Currie, P. J. Dinosaur biodiversity declined well before the asteroid impact, influenced by ecological and environmental pressures. Nat. Commun. 2021 121 12, 1–16 (2021). 

7. Maidment, S. C. R. et al. Bizarre dermal armour suggests the first African ankylosaur. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 2021 512 5, 1576–1581 (2021). 

8. Barker, C. T. et al. New spinosaurids from the Wessex Formation (Early Cretaceous, UK) and the European origins of Spinosauridae. Sci. Reports 2021 111 11, 1–15 (2021). 

9. van der Valk, T. et al. Million-year-old DNA sheds light on the genomic history of mammoths. Nat. 2021 5917849 591, 265–269 (2021). 

10. Hugonnet, R. et al. Accelerated global glacier mass loss in the early twenty-first century. Nat. 2021 5927856 592, 726–731 (2021). 

11. Global glacier retreat has accelerated: New study analyzes roughly 220,000 glaciers — ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/04/210429095154.htm. 

12. Zattara, E. E. & Aizen, M. A. Worldwide occurrence records suggest a global decline in bee species richness. One Earth 4, 114–123 (2021). 

13. Pacoureau, N. et al. Half a century of global decline in oceanic sharks and rays. Nat. 2021 5897843 589, 567–571 (2021). 

14. Awasthi, S. & Friedman, H. M. An mRNA vaccine to prevent genital herpes. Transl. Res. (2021) doi:10.1016/J.TRSL.2021.12.006. 

15. Zhang, P. et al. A multiclade env–gag VLP mRNA vaccine elicits tier-2 HIV-1-neutralizing antibodies and reduces the risk of heterologous SHIV infection in macaques. Nat. Med. 2021 2712 27, 2234–2245 (2021). 

16. Dolgin, E. mRNA flu shots move into trials. Nat. Rev. Drug Discov. 20, 801–803 (2021). 

17. Tunyasuvunakool, K. et al. Highly accurate protein structure prediction for the human proteome. Nat. 2021 5967873 596, 590–596 (2021). 

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