Top 10 science achievements in 2021 | Knowledge and environment | DW

This is not the Nobel Prize awarded to mostly aging scientists for groundbreaking discoveries they made decades ago.

But it is important who or what is mentioned each year by the world-famous Science Magazine. Because these are usually achievements and researchers that are extremely important today. Or it stood out especially negatively.

Breakthrough of the Year 2021

As “Breakthrough of the Year” in 2021, “Science” honors the revolutionary technology that also helps us in the current pandemic: Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology shows us very quickly and clearly what proteins look like and how they work. Thanks to new technology, tiny proteins can be analyzed and displayed in three dimensions more accurately than ever before.

According to Science, the process is as revolutionary as the CRISPR / Cas9 molecular gene scissors, which have also been re-recognized and are now a standard tool in molecular biology as they can be used to easily and precisely introduce genetic modification.

Proteins are made up of long chains and form complex balls that perform specific tasks. For example, some proteins, such as enzymes, can break down sugar molecules. Amino acids determine the structure of the chains. And the amino acid sequence, in turn, is predetermined in our approximately 20,000 genes.

Analyze protein structures faster and cheaper

So far, only the structures of about a third of human proteins have been analyzed. Until now, determining the structure of proteins by means of X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy has been very time-consuming and expensive.

It’s now much faster and cheaper with the new AI AlphaFold and RoseTTAFold programs. Because scientists only need to enter the amino acid sequence of a protein from the genome into a computer, the new technology creates an appropriate three-dimensional model.

COVID-19 spike protein section: Each spike consists of more than 20,000 atoms

The team around AlphaFold developer John Jumper has now been able to identify the appropriate structures for almost all human proteins, as the AI-powered tool searches all protein structures already stored in databases and learns practically by itself.

Basic knowledge of drug development

Only when scientists know the exact structure and function of a protein can they also understand its function in the body. New knowledge is also helping to design drugs that are precisely tailored to specific proteins.

In the current pandemic, scientists can use new artificial intelligence technology to model the effects of mutations on the shape of the spike protein that the coronavirus attaches to the cells of the body. Calculations are currently underway to determine whether the omicron variant of the coronavirus no longer binds human antibodies so well and whether immune protection is reduced as a result.

Nine more achievements

In addition to groundbreaking artificial intelligence technology, Science Magazine also features nine other scientific achievements that shaped the 2021 Scientific Year.

Particularly noteworthy is the method that brings benefits primarily to archeology and prehistory research, because the new method can extract human DNA from the earth, e.g. from Neanderthals. Until now, this has always required the DNA of the bone fragments found.

Leipzig researchers present a Neanderthal report

Until now, scientists have used, inter alia, bone powder to determine the DNA of Neanderthals

Pioneering research on psychedelics has also taken place, opening up completely new avenues for treating mental disorders. However, opinions differ widely as to whether psychedelics should actually be used to treat anxiety and depression.

The development of human embryos without fertilization – this also could revolutionize the work of researchers.

Also impressive was the powerful fusion reaction produced at the US National Ignition Facility (NIF), which may one day help solve the Earth’s energy problems.

Physicists are electrified by new discoveries in particle physics as a 2.5 parts per billion discrepancy reported in April may indicate new particles.

Animation of the NASA InSight lander on Mars

A technical masterpiece: NASA’s Lander InSight delivers amazing data from inside Mars

NASA’s InSight data is also fantastic, allowing extraordinary conclusions to be drawn about the composition of Mars’s interior.

And of course – how could it be otherwise – there has also been tremendous progress in the development of artificial antibodies and drugs against SARS-CoV-2.

Breakdowns: three particularly negative events

Apart from the groundbreaking “Breakthroughs of the Year”, “Science” also called “Breakdowns”, ie negative events of the year.

According to a specialist journal, this clearly includes the waning hope of meeting the ambitious 1.5-step target of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Demonstrators push a self-made car in the shape of a 1.5-degree climate target

We will no longer be able to achieve the climate goal that we have set for ourselves

Science also negatively evaluates the confusing dispute over a new Alzheimer’s drug with the active ingredient aducanumab.

The magazine is very concerned that scientists are increasingly at risk in the current pandemic.

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