Scientific Breakthroughs 2021: Successes with Long-Term Effects – Knowledge

For over ten years, on November 9, Berlin has been celebrating the “scientific breakthrough of the year”. And the people who made it possible. Triumphs of research and innovation that toppled seemingly insurmountable obstacles like the Wall in 1989. This year, there were over 1,000 nominations from 115 countries.

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But in fact, real world-changing breakthroughs in the course of the year are not possible. This year’s breakthrough, the first vaccine against Covid-19, was made in less than a year. The fastest drug development in the history of medicine.

But this would not be possible without decades of preparatory work. This was indicated by Özlem Türeci, who together with her husband Ugur Sahin founded the biotechnology company Biontech based in Mainz during the Falling Walls conference at Berlin’s Radialsystem. “It takes years of preparation to pull down the walls,” said the doctor. A sentence that applies to all the scientific discoveries presented on Tuesday.

RNA vaccines – from cancer to viruses

When Türeci and Sahin started with mRNA more than twenty years ago, they didn’t mean a vaccine against viruses, especially against the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which probably didn’t even exist then. “Cancer was the enemy,” said Türeci. Together, they wanted to find a way to train the immune system of cancer patients to act against cancer cells. To do this, they both had to show the immune system the typical features of a tumor, a kind of molecular profile.

Even if patients suffer from the same prostate cancer, their individual cancer is different: the profile that tells the immune system which cells are cancerous and which are to be attacked must therefore look slightly different for each patient.

However, it takes a long time for each patient to produce tens or hundreds of pieces of cancer-specific protein for each patient. This is where the messenger RNA (mRNA), the protein blueprint, comes into play. “We tried many technologies, but quickly realized that mRNA was the perfect tool,” said Türeci.

However, at first, RNA was far from perfect: the immune response triggered by the molecules was too weak. Türeci and Sahin have optimized RNA step by step over the years. “We were not alone in this,” many researchers have contributed to this. Finally, in 2019, the immune response to an RNA vaccine was 1,000 times stronger than a decade before.

Also because Türeci and Sahin have found a way to pack the RNA into tiny fat globules and put it in the right place in the lymph nodes where the immune system learns. The specialists reduced RNA production time, which initially took up to five months, to just a few weeks.

All this, Türeci said, prepared her for what was to come in 2020: the pandemic and the race for the first vaccine. The rest is history.

Light in the darkness of the blind

Finally, the first successful, partial reconstruction of a blind person’s ability to see. At the very beginning, basic research is carried out on single-celled green algae. In the 1980s, scientists, including Peter Hegemann of Humboldt University in Berlin, discovered tiny molecules that, in response to a light stimulus, open a tunnel through the algal cell’s membrane, passing ions through, thereby giving the cell an electrochemical signal. go towards the light to turn.

There was no indication that the blind would ever benefit from such exotic basic research. Yet a team led by French physician José-Alain Sahel of the University of the Sorbonne did, as he wrote in the journal Nature Medicine in May 2021.

Sahel resorted to a completely new field of research, optogenetics, which, after Hegemann’s early experiments, found dozens of much better light-induced membrane channels and developed them further for research, for example in the brain. Sahel smuggled instructions for building such light receptors into the cells of the retina of a patient who lost his eyesight as a teenager due to retinitis pigmentosa eye disease. Cells embedded artificial light receptors into their membranes. And indeed, with the help of special glasses, he can now see again, at least poorly.

Sahel is well aware that this technology will not help all blind people. That is why he ended his presentation at the Falling Walls conference with an appeal to the public. Only their often excluding behavior makes it so difficult for the blind to participate in social life.

Copied from nature

40 percent of all plastic packaging ends up in nature. Anne Lamp thought there must be a better way to solve this. A PhD in Process Engineering developed the technology for sustainable alternative plastics and set up a company to sell them.

The lamp copied its idea from nature. After all, nature produces many “disposable packaging” such as nut shells. Rather than remain as garbage, they are compostable and provide the material from which to grow new nut trees. “It’s a smart idea,” said the young researcher. Together with Johanna Baare, she founded the company Traceless Materials. Falling Walls now recognizes the company as Breakthrough in 2021 in the Science Start-Up category.

Innovative technology should be an alternative to plastic and bioplastic. It is based on agricultural waste products. “We use natural polymers in this material.” The founders found a way to transform these polymers into a new material: the result is a granulate with many of the properties of conventional plastic.

The process is simpler, more environmentally friendly and less expensive than the production of conventional bioplastics. Unlike bioplastics, natural polymers degrade in nature without a trace within a few weeks. In addition, it does not compete with food production, the material is climate friendly, non-toxic and can be produced with high quality at a competitive price.

Possible packages are snack bags, take-away coffee mugs or paper coatings. The demand for material is high. Currently, the company has produced various prototypes – e.g. a delivery bag for a shipping company. The first pilot plant is expected to launch the products next year. “By 2030, we want to be the market leader in compostable plastic alternatives,” says Lamp, who already holds four patents.

Faster charging thanks to niobium

Electrical appliances are an integral part of modern life – but only until the batteries run out. Then it’s time to plug it in and wait for it to charge. Clare Gray, a chemist at the University of Cambridge, wants to cut loading times to just a few minutes. “I imagine a world where you don’t have to worry about charging your devices,” said Gray.

She is concerned not only with the convenience of reducing charging times and not only personal devices such as mobile phones and laptops, but also industrial robots and new vehicles that aim to shift the transport sector from fossil fuels to electricity from renewable sources.

However, renewable energy such as solar and wind power is not always readily available. “We have to match supply and demand,” says Gray. This requires cheaper, safer, stronger and longer lasting batteries, preferably in a smaller format than the popular lithium-ion batteries.

Gray has developed a material that contains metallic niobium. At the battery electrode, where the positively charged ions migrate during charging, this gives the molecules more room to align with. “A bit like a sponge,” explains Gray. As a result, less energy is lost as heat and the electrodes last longer. With success: Gray shows a kind of vacuum robot that charges with one of the new batteries within 100 seconds.

On ice through the polar night

“We would like to take you on our journey to the epicenter of climate change,” said Markus Rex of the Potsdam Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) at the beginning of his presentation. The physicist, along with Stefanie Arndt of AWI Bremerhaven, reported on the largest Arctic expedition of all time in a region of the world that is now heating up three times faster than the rest of the earth, about three degrees Celsius.

An international research team aboard the German icebreaker “Polarstern” froze in the sea ice off the coast of Siberia in autumn 2019. From then on, the natural drift of the ice took control of the transport. The Polarstern was first flown across the Polar Sea, near the North Pole, during the polar night. At that time, this route has been blocked by thick sea ice for months.

The ice in which the Polarstern was trapped turned out to be stable, except for a few centimeter cracks, thanks to which …Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute / Esther Horvath (CC-BY 4.0)

On the ice next to the ship, the polar explorers built around 100 tons of devices and measuring equipment – always ready for the visits of curious polar bears. “We were able to collect completely new data from the Arctic center in the middle of winter,” says Arndt.

The team experienced violent storms, but was also able to study how they affect ice movement and the mixing of the water beneath it. “In the total darkness of the winter half-year, it sometimes felt like exploring another planet,” says Rex.

However, the collected data is used to study the Earth’s climate. The changes in the Arctic have repercussions that are also felt in other regions. For example, they contribute to the lack of westerly winds which can lead to extreme weather conditions in Europe.

The actual journey didn’t start until September, when the Polarstern finally broke away from the ice, says Arndt. “We have collected over 150 terabytes of data and many tons of snow and ice samples that we can analyze now.”

Find out better with your mobile phone

George Cowell shows a short film. The young Gifty from Ghana writes on her cell phone and looks a bit scared and then very happy. Not a game, but a self-learning learning program she enjoys, the maintainer of the chatbot “Rori”, who explains after three unsuccessful attempts to solve an arithmetic problem – and remembers what will help next time.

The brain behind this idea, Rising Academy Network international director George Cowell, was honored as Breakthrough 2021 in the ‘Learning for the Future’ category.

The Academy provides access to education for over 50,000 children in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana – a learning app that can help millions of children around the world. The pandemic has clarified what school closures mean.

Now that students return to class, UNESCO estimates that 617 million school-age children worldwide complete primary school without basic literacy or numeracy skills. The good news is that most kids can go back to school, but the bad news is that they often don’t study very much there, especially in Africa.

Thanks to “Rori”, personalized learning is now possible anytime, anywhere. Not to replace schools and teachers, but to improve them.

And with a large range, e.g. in Ghana, 95 percent. of households have mobile phones.

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