From discoveries on Mars to lemurs with rhythm: Unpacking the best scientific stories from 2021

This year, researchers learned more about COVID-19 as the virus continued to circulate and mutate.

There were medical breakthroughs in the treatment of other conditions and diseases. The cicadas appeared from underground, and Perseverance landed on Mars.

Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, says the biggest science story of the year – if not the decade or the century – is the success of COVID-19 vaccines in protecting humans from serious illness and death. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna used mRNA, a new vaccine technology, to make the vaccines.

“Although we’re getting new variations with delta and omicron,” says Helmuth, “it should be pretty straightforward to just make minor changes to these vaccines so they will work against the worst new virus variants as they evolve.”

Other top science stories from 2021

The first malaria vaccine ever approved by the World Health Organization

“Oh, this is great. And you know I’m taking it back. Maybe these two stories together [COVID-19 vaccines and the malaria vaccine] are the greatest stories of the decade, possibly the century. It’s amazing. People have been trying for decades to figure out how to make a malaria vaccine. It is so much harder than creating a vaccine against a bacterial disease or a virus because the malaria parasite is a whole organism.

Health authorities prepare to vaccinate residents of the village of Tomali in Malawi, where young children will be test subjects for the world's first malaria vaccine on December 11, 2019. (Jerome Delay / AP / File)
Health authorities prepare to vaccinate residents of the village of Tomali in Malawi, where young children will be test subjects for the world’s first malaria vaccine on December 11, 2019. (Jerome Delay / AP / File)

“It’s really complicated, and it has all these different stages of its life cycle, and it lives in the blood, it lives in the liver. It’s just really hard to find and hard for the immune system to stop it. So it was really hard to find. on a vaccine that worked.And finally we have one.It has been underway.It has been through clinical trials.There are others that are underway and that seem to be even more effective.And none of “These are just as effective as the COVID vaccines. But they do seem to really, really be able to protect children in particular from being affected by this terrible disease.”

CRISPR successfully treats some blood diseases

“The CRISPR-Cas9 genre editing system, the discoverers of this won the Nobel Prize last year in 2020. It is not that old a discovery. From the beginning, scientists said, OK, well, it seems that this is something that could very accurately change genes, especially genes that are responsible for diseases based on just a single mutation or a very simple problem in the genome.

“This year we have some of the first results that show that the technique can be used safely and apparently effectively for the treatment of sickle cell disease. It has been used in another blood disease called beta-thalassemia and then a really ugly disease called transthyretin amyloidosis. It is a deadly condition and there was an attempt with CRISPR-Cas9 to protect people from this basically a misfolded protein that causes terrible disease and death. They are all still in the early stages. We talk like dozens of people in the trials, but it looks very promising that this is a technique that could be safe and effective. To date, no serious adverse reactions have been reported for the treatment of diseases starting from basic genetic mutations. “

Brood X cicadas are popping up this summer after nearly two decades underground

An adult cicada was spotted in Washington, DC, on May 6, 2021. Billions of cicadas are emerging from 15 states.  (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
An adult cicada was spotted in Washington, DC, on May 6, 2021. Billions of cicadas are emerging from 15 states. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

“Oh, it was amazing. These insects spent 17 years underground waiting for billions to appear.… They were so loud. They buzzed and screamed and jumped at things all summer. So we learned a lot about their life cycle. Every time. they show up, the researchers get really excited.Especially this year they studied this ugly fungus that infects male cicadas and makes their genitals fall off.But the males are still trying to mate with the female cicadas and it unfortunately spreads the fungus and causes a lots of dead cicadas.They had to die anyway, but unfortunately they die before they can do what they have been waiting for 17 years to do, which is to reproduce and lay their eggs.So it was a bit rough but interesting.

“And there’s a lot of new research into how the tunnels they dig into the ground while popping up have changed how water seeps through the ground, so they just have this huge effect. Especially on all the birds or ground squirrels and squirrels, eating insects, they had a really good year because they were just so many fat, juicy cicadas to eat. “

Out of this world discoveries on Mars

“Marsquakes are cool. We’ve learned so much about Mars in the last few years. We’ve heard the first sounds of the Martian atmosphere and the winds and storms whipping across the Martian atmosphere that are much thinner than ours. And in February, the Mars Perseverance rover, nicknamed Percy, landed in the Jezero Crater, a large crater on Mars that has a river delta, an old river used to flow there, and it created a delta, just like you would see at the end of Mississippi River. So this little rover is just rolling in this crater and taking soil samples. It’s collecting them that we’ll one day try to figure out a way to send them back to Earth and analyze, like a little geologist, a cute little robotic geologist who analyzes the rocks.Some of the scientists on the Perseverance mission reported that the rocks they were trying were actually from an ancient lava flow.They thought they might have been sedimentary rocks placed there by the old lake bottom, the old river delta, but that looks like it was a big, big magma stream like from a volcano.

This April 6, 2021 image, made available by NASA, shows the Perseverance Mars rover, the foreground, and the Ingenuity helicopter about 13 feet behind.  This composite image was made by the WASTON camera on the rover's robotic arm on the 46th of March, or Sun, of the mission.  (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS via AP)
This April 6, 2021 image, made available by NASA, shows the Perseverance Mars rover, the foreground, and the Ingenuity helicopter about 13 feet behind. This composite image was made by the WASTON camera on the rover’s robotic arm on the 46th of March, or Sun, of the mission. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS via AP)

“So as part of this mission, there’s a helicopter called Ingenuity. [NASA] always have very inspiring, hopeful names for their project names. It’s a helicopter that we’re flying on another planet, which is just inconceivable. It’s hard enough to fly a helicopter on Earth, but you know you’re flying it with a joystick on Mars. And Mars has a very thin atmosphere, so it’s hard to get the lift to make the helicopter fly. But it’s been up 17 times so far, and it kind of scouts around the crater, while the rover somehow rolls along the bottom of this crater. So they work as a team to explore Mars. “

The successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, which many astronomers call ‘The Just Wonderful Space Telescope’ instead of using the James Webb name to emphasize [that] it’s a really big thing. It has been underway for about 30 years. It was originally supposed to launch in 2007, but you know it’s complicated. It’s a process. Many things went wrong. It’s this really expensive, complicated, exciting project.

“It’s designed to see the oldest things in the universe, so the very first stars and galaxies that were formed just after the Big Bang, and it’s going to have a much larger telescope. in the room.So it’s really just [an] engineering complex project. And if it works, we will have the best understanding we have ever had of how the universe began and what has happened in the last billions and billions of years. ”

To discover that a particular type of lemur has rhythm

An Indri, the largest living lemur sitting in a tree in the rainforest of the Perinet Reserve in Madagascar.  (Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images)
An Indri, the largest living lemur sitting in a tree in the rainforest of the Perinet Reserve in Madagascar. (Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images)

“A lot of what we just enjoy about science is understanding strange animal behaviors. You know, crooked new things. And one of the things I’ve gotten a kick out of is a study this year about a kind of lemur called indri lemurs. And it turns out that they are the only primates besides humans known to have a sense of rhythm. sounds they make, and the timing, and they match their rhythms to sing basically with each other.The reason they do this seems to be for bonding and communication.It’s also like a sweet sound.It reminds us a little bit, why we sing together. “


Julia Corcoran produced this interview and edited it for broadcast. Serena McMahon adapted the interview for the web.

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