The Best of Science in 2019

Read time: 7 mins
31 Dec 2019
A journey through the year for science in 2019

As Newton’s famous quote, “standing on the shoulders of giants”, this year, science has made considerable advances, building on many feats achieved in the past years. New discoveries, insights and inventions in the areas of astronomy, biology, medicine, paleontology and physics marked the year. Here is a selected pick of ten such breakthroughs in science witnessed in 2019.

1. Detailing the Denisovans

An early sketch of a Denisovan teen [Image Credits: Maayen Harel]

This year revealed some fantastic facts about our ancient ancestors, the Denisovans, who lived about 100,000 years ago. So far, we knew about them through scrap fossils from the Denisova Cave in Siberia, Russia. This year, researchers found a fossilised jawbone in the Tibetian plateau, which on DNA analysis showed that it belonged to the Denisovans, who were the region’s first hominin inhabitants. It was also believed earlier that Denisovans were closely related to Neanderthals than to present-day humans. On the contrary, genomic analysis of the fossils from the Denisova Cave showed that they were closer to humans than to Neanderthals. But, how did our ancestors look like? Based on patterns of chemical changes in their DNA, researchers have reconstructed the anatomy of Denisovans. The findings reveal that some traits, like a sloping forehead, long face and large pelvis resemble Neanderthals, while others, like a large dental arch and very wide skull, are unique. Based on these findings, they even reconstructed the face of a teenage Denisovan girl.

2. An elusive cure to Ebola

Electron micrograph of an Ebola virus virion [Image Credits: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith]

Ebola, a deadly viral disease that shook the African continent, affects humans and other primates and a cure for this disease has eluded science so far.  Although an experimental vaccine is being developed, without a therapeutic cure, those infected are doomed to die. This year, two drugs that were tested during an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may have hopes as they dramatically increased patients’ chances of survival. The two drugs, named REGN-EB3 and mAb-114, contain a cocktail of antibodies that are injected into the bloodstream of those infected. These drugs have shown a success rate of about 90% , bringing hopes to those battered by the disease.

3. The first image of a blackhole

The first captured image of a black hole [Image Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration]

Black holes, the most dense objects of our Universe, have been awe-inspiring for a century. However, we did not even know how they looked—but all that changed this year. Scientists used a combination of telescope observations around the globe to reveal the first ever photograph of a supermassive black hole present at the heart of the distant galaxy Messier 87 in the Virgo constellation. The image, which captures the shadow of the black hole, shows a black hole that is 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass of 6.5 billion times that of the Sun. Researchers believe that this epic photograph opens a new window into the study of black holes, their event horizons, and gravity.

4. Conquering Quantum Computing

Photograph of the Sycamore processor. [Image Credits: Erik Lucero, Research Scientist and Lead Production Quantum Hardware, Google]

Although physicists have been working on realising the concept of quantum computing for over three decades, it wasn’t until this year that there was something tangible. Physicists and Engineers at Google claim to have developed the first functional quantum computer that can perform a set of computations in 200 seconds, which would have otherwise taken the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years! This quantum computer has a 54-qubit processor, named “Sycamore”, which is comprised of quantum logic gates.

5. Beating malnutrition in the gut

Escherichia coli, a common bacteria found in the human gut [Image Credits: Photo by Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU]

While it was long known that microbes in our gut played a vital role in our health and well-being, two studies published during the year showed how they could be used to address malnutrition—a condition that affects millions of children around the world. The researchers analysed the types of microbes present in the gut of healthy and malnourished children and focused on boosting crucial gut microbes in the children using affordable, culturally acceptable foods.

6. Pushing the limits of gene editing

The DNA Double Helix [Image Credits: Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay]

After tasting success and controversies last year for genetically editing babies, researchers in China this year reported to have cloned five genetically edited macaques for research purposes for the first time. These monkeys have reduced sleep, increased movements in the night, increased anxiety and depression, and schizophrenia-like behaviors. Although it raises ethical questions,  the researchers believe that cloned monkeys could replace the wild monkeys used in laboratories today. In the UK, scientists used gene therapy to arrest a form of age-related blindness and in the US, CRISPR, the gene editing software, was used to treat cancer.

7. The rampant loss of world’s ice

Meltwater on the ice shelf next to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.[Image Credit: Nicholas Bayou, UNAVCO]

With the rising global temperature, ice on the Earth’s surface is melting at a rapid rate. In Greenland, the ice sheets are melting seven times faster than they did in the 90s. Greenland has lost 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992, a quantity - enough to push global sea levels up by 10.6 millimetres. In Antartica, studies have detected significant changes in the thickness of the floating ice shelves, which hold the land-based ice in place. As a result, there could be more ice moving from the land into the sea. Similar loss of ice has been reported in the Alps and the Himalayas. The rising sea levels are estimated to displace 300 million people all over the world, affecting coastal cities and their livelihoods.

8. Taking a closer look at the Moon

The far side of the moon that is invisible to Earth [ Image Credits: NASA Apollo 16 photograph AS16-3021]

This year, China's National Space Administration (CNSA) achieved the first soft landing on the far side of the Moon with its Chang'e 4 mission. This mission will attempt to determine the age and composition of an unexplored region of the Moon. India also launched its second lunar mission, Chandrayaan 2, to map and study the variations in the lunar surface composition, and the location and abundance of water. The mission consisted of an orbiter, the Vikram lunar lander and the Pragyan rover. However, Vikram crashed during landing, in its attempt to land closer to the lunar south pole.

9. Biodiversity on the brink of extinction

A frog from the Western Ghats

This year, an extensive report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that of the estimated 8 million species of animals and plants on the planet, about a million face the threat of extinction, many within decades. About 40% of amphibians, a third of marine life and about 10% of the insects are at the brink of extinction. The report mentions that changes in land and sea use, exploitation of organisms; climate change, pollution and invasive alien species as primary reasons behind this situation. 

10. Chronicling the final moments of dinosaurs

Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay

It is well known that the dinosaurs, giant reptiles that once ruled the planet, went extinct about 66 million years ago when an asteroid crashed into Earth at the Chicxulub crater in Mexico. This year, scientists detailed fallouts of the impact that resulted in a mass extinction by examining the topography of the centre of the crater. When the asteroid struck, the melt rocks and breccia deposited at the bottom of the crater within minutes and over a few hours, another 90 metres were deposited. There was also a tsunami and a wildfire that followed the impact, which emitted sulphur aerosols that cooled the earth and blocked much of the sunlight.