These are the ten most important scientific breakthroughs of 2022

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The golden eye of the James Webb Space Telescope has shown the universe in unprecedented detail. Its launch tops this year's ranking of scientific milestones, which also include the discovery of the world's largest bacterium, the deflection of an asteroid, two-million-year-old DNA, advances against viruses and creativity in artificial intelligence.

Estos son los diez avances cientificos de 2022 segun Science y el Webb esta el primero
El telescopio espacial James Webb ha captado un ardiente ‘reloj de arena’ durante la formación de una nueva estrella, una de sus muchas imágenes espectaculares. / NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale, A. Pagan, and A. Koekemoer (STScI)

The magazine Science has released its 'top ten' of 2022. "We chose the most important science news of the last year, with an eye to their impact on research and society, and also on the science of the future," he explains to SINC Tim Appenzellerwho heads the news section of this prestigious magazine and oversees its worldwide team of editors.

Appenzeller recognizes that the milestone in nuclear fusion released this week "was announced after we sent our science breakthrough issue to the press, so we could not take it into account for this year. In any case, the list is headed by a clear winner: the James Webb, the largest space observatory in history.

James Webb telescope's golden eye opens to the universe

After numerous setbacks, 20 years of development, a high cost of US$10 billion and a perilous 1.5 million kilometer journey into space, the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWSTThe NASA, ESA and Canadian space agency) finally opened its golden eye and allowed us to observe our universe - and its unfathomable past - in astonishing and unprecedented detail.

Unlike its predecessor, Hubble, JWST can capture infrared light, including that emitted by the first stars and galaxies that came into existence. Within days of becoming operational at the end of June 2022, researchers began discovering thousands of new, more distant and older galaxies than any of those documented until then.

In addition to offering spectacular images In the cosmos, the telescope is able to collect enough light from astronomical objects (from nascent stars to exoplanets) to reveal what they are made of and how they move through space. This data has already provided a detailed understanding of the atmospheric composition of planets located hundreds of light-years from Earth, offering clues to their ability to support life.

A gigantic microbe that can be seen with the naked eye

He discovery of the world's largest bacteriumwith their complex internal structures, has shaken up biology this year. Microbes are supposed to be microscopic, but they are Thiomargarita magnifica can be 5000 times larger than many bacterial cells. It easily reaches one centimeter in length.

This single bacteriumThe yarn-like plant was first discovered in decomposing leaves in a mangrove swamp on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, in the French West Indies.

In a bacterial cell, its DNA is normally free-floating in the cytoplasm, but in T. magnifica is in compartments called pepins attached to the membrane, an innovation characteristic of more complex cells. In these 'nuggets' the genetic code of the cell is stored, the DNA is read and translated into proteins. The presence of these 'nuggets', together with the enormous size of these bacteria, raises questions about basic principles in the biological sciences.

Perennial rice promising easier farming

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Researchers from Yunnan University (China) and other international institutions have developed perennial rice. / The Land Institute

The world's main food crops - rice, wheat and corn - must be planted for every harvest, which is labor-intensive for farmers and can contribute to environmental problems such as soil erosion.

This year, Chinese researchers have shown that a type of perennial rice, which survives and produces year after year, can help solve these problems. This variety, called perennial rice 23 (PR23), was created years ago by crossing commercial Asian rice with a perennial wild rice grown in Africa. It has taken more than two decades to improve its yield and quality.

Finally, in 2018, researchers at Yunnan University and other institutions made this new variety available to farmers in China, enlisting them in a large-scale experiment to find out how many times it can be harvesting rice and measuring yields. PR23 produced the same amount of grain as normal seasonally sown rice, as reported in November in the journal Nature Sustainability. This perennial rice is increasingly being cultivated, although research continues on how to improve it and its possible effects on the environment.

The footprint of the Black Death in the genes of Europeans

La peste negra produjo cambios en el sistema inmunitario humano que persisten hoy

Researchers extracted DNA from the remains of people buried in some plague graves in London / Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).

The Black Death killed between one-third and one-half of Europe's inhabitants 700 years ago. After analyzing ancient DNA in the bones of more than 500 people buried before, during and after this plague in London and Denmark, a team of researchers has studied the genes of the immune system and has identified a striking effect.

As published in Naturesurvivors were significantly more likely to carry genetic variants that enhanced their immune response to Yersinia pestisthe flea-borne bacterium that causes plague. Specifically, they found that having two copies of a specific variant of the ERAP2 gene was strongly associated with plague survival.

This protective variant is still found today in the 45 % of the British, for example. Its persistence suggests that it remained favored by natural selection until recently, probably because plague was endemic in Europe and Asia until the 19th century. This protection comes at a price, though: the same variant also confers an increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Lost worlds reconstructed with the most ancient DNA

Nuevo record de ADN mas antiguo dos millones de anos

Thanks to ancient DNA it has been possible to reconstruct a landscape from two million years ago in what is now northern Greenland. / Beth Zaikenjpg

Until recently, the lifespan of DNA was considered to be about one million years. It was thought that much older genetic material would be highly degraded and unreadable. However, scientists have succeeded in extracting tiny fragments from DNA at least 2 million years old of the frozen Arctic soil.

Their study, published in Naturedemonstrates the power of the Environmental DNA to reconstruct lost worlds: in this case, a coastal forest different from today's that flourished during a warm climate episode in the far north of Greenland.

DNA fragments from 41 organic-rich samples from a thick layer of sediments piled at the mouth of a fjord revealed a lush forest of aspen, thuja and other conifers; black geese and horseshoe crabs; and mammals such as reindeer, lemmings and mastodons. Analysis of the ancient genes will help to better understand the species and their adaptations, and even raise controversial proposals to to bring them back to life.

RSV vaccines close to goal

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Infants with severe respiratory syncytial virus infections, such as this one in a German NICU, often need ventilation / Marijan Murat/Picture Alliance via Getty Images/Science

He respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a pathogen that infects the respiratory tract. It is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in infants under one year of age, but it can also affect adults (with a picture similar to the common cold) and is becoming an important cause of respiratory problems in the elderly.

Now, large-scale clinical trials of two RSV vaccines have finally shown that they can safely protect infants and the elderly. Both vaccines prevented severe disease in people over 60 years of age without causing serious side effects. One of them also protected infants for six months when given to their mothers at the end of pregnancy, so that they could pass the antibodies to their fetuses.

The new vaccines are based on 2013 studies by Barney Graham and his collaborators at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (U.S.) on viral proteins, but have now been found to trigger much higher levels of potent antibodies and resolve safety issues. The good news from this year's trials conducted by GSK and Pfizer confirms this strategy, and results from Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Bavarian Nordic will also be available soon.

Asteroid deflected with DART mission

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Actual image of the Dimorphos asteroid hit by the DART probe. / NASA

For thousands or millions of years, a small moon called Dimorphos circled a larger asteroid, Didymos, millions of kilometers from Earth. On September 26, the NASA impacted a spacecraftforever altering its orbit and demonstrating a strategy that could one day save humanity.

When the refrigerator-sized Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) probe crashed at about 6 kilometers per second into 160-meter-wide Dimorphos, they celebrated the first simulation of a planetary defense mission. NASA's goal was to bring Dimorphos slightly closer to its companion, shortening its orbital period.

A few days later, the success of the mission was confirmed. Its leaders reported that the impact altered the orbit of Dimorphos around Didymos by 32 minutes, reducing it from 11 hours and 55 minutes to 11 hours and 23 minutes. This demonstrated a strategy that could be followed if an asteroid ever threatens Earth.

United States passes historic climate bill

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New U.S. climate legislation will subsidize renewable energy, including solar / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Despite major U.S. scientific studies on the risks of climate change and warnings from its diplomats in international forums, those warnings rang hollow because, unlike many wealthy countries, the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gases (after China) had never passed a law to substantially reduce these emissions.

This summer, when attempts to pass such a regulation seemed doomed again to failure, everything changed when a key senator suddenly dropped his opposition and it went through. The climate provisions of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)The new measures are the biggest step ever taken by the United States to curb global warming.

The law provides for 369 billion dollars for 10 years to support electricity from renewable sources and nuclear power, while encouraging widespread switch to electric vehicles and research to reduce industrial emissions. It is estimated that this would enable the US to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 % by 2030 compared to 2005, so it will need further action if it is to meet its 50 % target under the Paris Agreement.

Artificial intelligence gets creative

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La obra ‘Théâtre D’opéra Spatial’ de Jason Allen, generada por inteligencia artificial, ganó el primer premio en la categoría digital de la Feria Estatal de Colorado. / @colostatefair

Artificial intelligence (AI) is making inroads, especially this year, in areas once considered exclusively human, such as artistic expression and scientific discovery. The most visually stunning evidence - flooding the social networks - is provided by the text to image models. Using machine learning to match words to pictures on linefinding patterns that allow the generation of new images based on new texts.

Un ejemplo es el programa DALL-E del laboratorio de investigación OpenAI, que ha implementado una técnica de aprendizaje automático llamada difusión, donde las imágenes surgen del “ruido” guiadas por el contexto o las descripciones del texto. Este año se han presentado varios modelos de este tipo, y un artista que utilizó uno de ellos won a fine arts competition. At the same time, Meta, Google and other companies have launched broadcast models capable of creating videos.

On the other hand, creative applications of AI in science continue. Tools that predict the 3D structure of proteins were already one of the milestones in 2021 and this year have advanced, and even the company DeepMindwith its AlphaFold program, has been able to predict the three-dimensional shape of the more than 200 million proteins of the Earth's organisms. In addition, this Google company has introduced AlphaTensor, a tool that designs more efficient algorithms for computer graphics, physical simulations and machine learning itself. It has found shortcuts that human mathematicians had overlooked for decades.

The virus behind multiple sclerosis

El virus de Epstein Barr podria ser la causa principal de la esclerosis multiple

In multiple sclerosis, microglia cells damage the myelin sheath of neuron axons / Adobe Stock

This year it has been demonstrated that a common herpes virusEpstein-Barr virus is an essential factor in multiple sclerosis. (MS), a disease in which the immune system attacks neurons. The finding may lead to new ways to treat or prevent this mysterious disorder, which causes mild symptoms in some sufferers, but gradually renders others unable to speak or walk.

For some time now, the main suspect in the MS has been the Epstein-Barr virus, que infecta a la mayoría de las personas en la infancia y permanece latente en algunos glóbulos blancos. Transmitido principalmente a través de la saliva, puede provocar mononucleosis infecciosa, o “enfermedad del beso”, en adolescentes y adultos jóvenes. Casi todas las personas con esclerosis múltiple tienen anticuerpos contra el virus de Epstein-Barr, pero también los tienen el 95 % de los adultos sanos, lo que dificulta asociarlo como la causa.

To confirm the link, epidemiologists examined 20 years of medical records of more than 10 million U.S. military personnel. They found that virtually all of the 801 soldiers who developed MS tested positive for Epstein-Barr virus. And among those who initially tested negative, a subsequent infection increased the risk of developing the disease 32-fold, they reported in Science.

A few days later, other researchers published in Nature a possible mechanism of molecular mimicry by which the latent virus can awaken and cause nerve damage. The investigations continue with an eye on the development of new drugs.

Fountain: 
Science