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5 Biggest Science Stories Of 2022 – Chosen By Scientists.

  • Thursday, 19 Jan, 2023
  • 2435
5 Biggest Science Stories Of 2022

1. The Dart and Orion Missions

This year started out well. or, rather, it didn't happen. The popular film Don’t Look Up, in which a comet is determined to be on a collision track with Earth, had been released shortly before Christmas 2021. In the post-holiday slump, the media went on a wild goose chase for whatever story they could find about an impending asteroid crash. Just in the month of January, five different asteroids were predicted to come within a relatively safe distance of our planet. Thankfully, none were expected to come within a hair's breadth of impacting the globe, which bodes well for human health and well-being. The Earth is riddled with craters from asteroids that have already hit it, and it is commonly known that a collision with an asteroid of 10 km in diameter caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Do we have any hope of escaping this existential alien danger? Thankfully, the global space community has begun taking measures to lessen the likelihood of an asteroid striking without warning. The Double Asteroid Re-Direction Test (DART) project, a collaboration between NASA and ESA, was an ambitious effort to redirect a tiny asteroid (Dimorphos) while it orbited a slightly bigger one (Didymos). In October, we got word that the mission had been considerably more successful than expected, and that Dimorphos' orbit had shifted, proving that we could divert an asteroid off a collision course with Earth if we had enough time.

Our moon has also been in the headlines as a potential destination for the next generation of astronauts, a topic often associated with reports of asteroid activity. The Apollo 17 mission, which was the final time humans touched foot on the moon, turned 50 this year. As such, the launch of Artemis, another Nasa-Esa collaborative mission, to bring humans back to the moon is reason for joy. The Orion capsule, which was sent into space in the mission's first stage and safely returned to Earth last week, was launched in the middle of November. The spacecraft can carry up to six humans, but on the first trip around the moon, there were none. In the future, we may anticipate a progression of Orion missions growing in complexity, culminating in a manned lunar landing as early as 2025.

2. Covid’s Boost To Immune Research

The development of new vaccines has accelerated at a rate never seen before, and this might have far-reaching consequences. To induce an immune response, vaccines often combine the introduction of a "infection" signal (originating from the pathogen) with an alarm signal (to wake the immune response up). Our ability to design new vaccines that convey these signals has grown with our understanding of immunology. The time, money, and manpower normally required to design a new vaccine were significantly accelerated during the epidemic, leading to a slew of firsts.

Such bivalent vaccinations include the fall Covid-19 booster doses we were recently provided; these vaccines target both the original strain of Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) and the Omicron version. When compared to the original immunisations, bivalent vaccines are preferable since they provide a greater immune response and boost our immunity. What if, though, your immunity could be increased such that it protected you against not just two, but many other types of virus? The prospects for so-called multivalent vaccinations against Covid-19 and influenza are bright. The use of mucosal vaccinations, which may be inhaled like a mist, is another strategy that may become commonplace in the near future. Currently used in China to combat Covid-19, they have the potential to provide long-term protection against respiratory infections. Those of us who are scared of needles find them far more enticing, too. If these advances live up to their potential, yearly vaccination reminders may become obsolete.

3. AI reveals New Antibiotics

Artificial intelligence (AI) has revolutionised molecular biology in recent years. The AlphaFold algorithm, which predicts protein three-dimensional structures swiftly, kicked off this revolution by helping scientists better understand protein activities and find new therapeutic targets. Another AI first has been announced in 2022: the first effective uses of AI to detect new antibiotic medications, at the tail end of the drug development pipeline.

The rise of bacteria and other microbes resistant to treatment is a worldwide emergency. According to a paper published in The Lancet this year on global research on antimicrobial resistance, untreatable illnesses are now one of the main causes of mortality globally, accounting for 4.95 million deaths in 2019.

It is an ongoing challenge to discover and develop novel medications to counteract resistance and replenish our supply of useful antimicrobials. And that's where AI is starting to really shine today. To find antimicrobial peptides encoded by the genomic sequences of microorganisms in the human gut, for instance, Yue Ma and colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences applied machine-learning algorithms initially developed for natural language processing. The programme discovered 2,349 possible sequences of peptides that might be used as antibiotics. Of these, 181 peptides were shown to exhibit antibacterial action after being synthesised chemically. Such a high rate of success would not have been achievable without the use of artificial intelligence.

Surprisingly, over half of the found peptides were completely novel and showed no sequence resemblance to recognised antimicrobials, which increases the likelihood of evading resistance mechanisms. Three of the novel peptides were shown to be useful in treating bacterial pneumonia in mice in preclinical studies. This study is encouraging because it points the way toward new treatments for some of the most dangerous pathogens we face today more quickly than ever before.

4. Early Weather Warnings

In 2022, scientists predicted a hurricane that would strike the US coast even while it was forming in the ocean. Before a single drop of rain had fallen, we could already see the Brisbane River winding its way through Australian neighbourhoods. And we had firemen at the ready even before the flames that ravaged southern France had been kindled. Today, we have the ability to predict many of these natural disasters days in advance.

Yet, tragic deaths have been common in 2022. This summer's record-breaking heat killed over 20,000 people throughout Europe, with temperatures in England reaching above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time ever. During a monstrous monsoon season in August, one third of Pakistan was submerged in water, and 1,700 people lost their lives. The effects of these catastrophes are being exacerbated by global warming.

This is why the effort by UN Secretary General António Guterres for the world to have equitable access to early warnings is the biggest scientific story of the last year, not ground-breaking research or state-of-the-art engineering. The greatest approach to avoid catastrophe is to warn people about it so they can take protective measures. We must everyone have free and equal access to the knowledge and technologies that have come before us. Equally important is for leaders to communicate and respond to the resulting warnings.

5. Inclusive Inroads

The therapy of sickle cell disease, a set of genetic illnesses that causes red blood cells to become sickle shaped and may lead to anaemia, has made a tiny but significant step forward this year. It was discovered that the anaemia and extreme pain associated with sickle cell disease might be treated using a medicine originally designed to treat a lack of an enzyme (pyruvate kinase). While this study is still in its infancy, the researchers say they were able to make progress by considering other factors associated with sickle cell disease outside the red blood cells themselves. Millions of people, especially in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and South America, may now have hope thanks to this breakthrough, which benefits those with various illnesses.

In the same year, Nasa launched Helga and Zohar, two female torsos designed to test the effects of radiation on the assumption that women appear to be at a greater risk from space radiation than men. The Artemis mission's goal is to "land the first woman and first person of colour on the moon" by 2025. This may not sound noteworthy, but in 2022, a Swedish research team created a new crash test dummy portraying a "typical woman," as opposed to using a male dummy scaled down to the size of a 12-year-old girl.

These kind of advancements give me optimism for a more egalitarian scientific future in which gender, race, and geography will play no role in favouring or excluding any particular group of people.

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