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Techvik’s Wrapped: Scientific Breakthroughs of 2020

Written by Pragya Khanna & Gurleen Pannu

Even with the pandemic affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, this year managed to usher in some truly groundbreaking discoveries and researches in science, from spotting prostate cancer with the help of AI to achieving superconductivity at room temperature.


As a new year starts, here's a look back at some of the most mind-boggling scientific discoveries and achievements of 2020.


Plastic-eating “super-enzymes”


Global plastic pollution has posed an issue for our planet for ages. The first ray of hope out of it was the discovery of the PETase enzyme discovery, even though with the tons of PET waste bestrewing our planet PETase wasn’t fast enough to make the procedure commercially viable.


Fig. 1. MHETPET (‘super-enzyme’)


Later, a second enzyme called MHETase was combined with PETase, to generate an enzyme ‘cocktail’. A simple mixture of PETase with MHETase had doubled the speed of PET breakdown and creating a ‘super-enzyme’ by engineering a connection between the two enzymes, increased the rate by a further three times.


The initial enzymes and the super-enzyme both return the original building blocks of PET plastic by digesting it. This permits us to make and reuse plastic endlessly, reducing our dependence on fossil resources such as oil and gas.


But this doesn’t solve the issue of the plastic waste completely. There are still several problems such as acquiring plastic waste from the oceans and other corners. Hence, it’s safe to say that even though our challenges haven't been entirely solved, this discovery has still brought us really close to solving them!


Space-X NASA’s Crew-1 Mission


The general ideology regarding space travel is that it is highly expensive, but NASA and SpaceX together have managed to launch a mission that makes space travel more affordable making it possible for any individual to buy a ticket on a commercial rocket. This undoubtedly marks the beginning of a new era of space travel, the dreams of which we’ve been seeing since 2011.


NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission lifted off on Nov. 15, Sunday at 7:27 p.m. EST from Launch Complex 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Crew-1 is the first of the 6 crewed missions that NASA and SpaceX will operate as part of the Commercial Crew program. It is the first operational flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket to the ISS and is also the first of the three such flights which are scheduled over the course of 2020-21.


The Crew-1 mission launched the agency’s astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission specialist Soichi Noguchi for a 6 months long mission aboard the ISS, where they will join the members of Expedition 64, the space station crew currently at residence there.


Source: NASA


The objective of the mission is to make access to space more affordable. With Crew-1, the cargo and crew can be easily transported to and from the ISS, which further enables greater scientific research.


The Crew-1 mission marks many firsts for NASA and SpaceX:

  1. The first crewed flight to launch from American soil since the conclusion of the space shuttle era in 2011.

  2. The first flight of the NASA-certified commercial system.

  3. The first international crew of four to launch on an American commercial spacecraft.

  4. The first time the space station’s long-duration expedition crew size will increase from six to seven crew members, which will add to the crew time available for research.

  5. The first time the Federal Aviation Administration has licensed a human orbital spaceflight launch.

Amongst the many experiments going on aboard Crew Dragon is a student-designed experiment titled, “Genes in Space-7” which aims to understand how spaceflight affects the functioning of the brain. The other experiments onboard include research to enable scientists to understand the physical interactions on liquid, rocks, and microorganisms as well as an experiment to understand the role of microgravity on human health and how microgravity affects heart tissues.


Closest Images of Sun Ever Taken


It isn’t wrong to say that it was a banner year for solar observations! The ESA-led Solar Orbiter mission released the closest images of the sun ever taken, from just 47 million miles away (about half the distance between Earth and the sun). The images revealed the existence of miniature campfire-like solar flares near the surface of the sun. Constant stormy activities emanating from the sun’s corona were also noticed in the images.


Fig. 2. A high-resolution image from the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) on ESA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft


The temperature difference between the sun's atmosphere (over 1 million) and its surface (about 5,500°C) has been a pressing issue. These new observations propose that the heating might be caused by numerous small events happening all over (i.e., the campfires), all releasing energy that torches the corona and collectively raises the atmospheric temperatures.


The purpose of the Solar Orbiter is not just limited to understanding the sun's physical properties but also understanding space weather so that we can better protect ourselves (extreme space weather can fry any electronic equipment in orbits such as critical satellites used for GPS and communications). For this, we need to know more about the interaction of the sun's magnetic field with its active regions which gives rise to solar flares and extreme solar winds.


Meanwhile, the spacecraft is in its cruise phase and moving farther away from Earth and behind the sun, so its telescopes won’t be able to study these campfire features until the start of the science phase in November 2021. The spacecraft is expected to get just under 30 million miles away from the sun (even closer than Mercury’s orbit) by early 2022.


CRISPR’s Clinical Trial Triumph


The past few years have been a very exciting time for gene editing therapy! 2019 saw the results from the first human clinical studies whereas 2020 saw the CRISPR gene editing tools inserted directly into the human body for the first time.


The CRISPR-Cas9 gene therapy was administered directly into the body of a person suffering from a rare genetic condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis 10 (LCA10) which is one of the leading causes of blindness in childhood for the first time, making the treatment a landmark clinical trial of 2020.


Source: Tufts University


Mark Pennesi, a specialist in inherited retinal diseases at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland is collaborating with Editas Medicine of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Allergan of Dublin to conduct the trial, which has rightly been named BRILLIANCE.


BRILLIANCE trial is the first to deploy the very popular CRISPR-Cas9 technique which has been hailed for its versatility and ease of design directly in the body, Gene editing is used to delete a mutation in the gene CEP290 that is responsible for LCA10, in BRILLIANCE.


The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences also decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 to Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Germany, and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, the US for the development of CRISPR-Cas9, a method for genome editing, thus signifying the importance of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique.


Silicon-based Material with a Direct Band gap


Silicon, the element with atomic number 14 is one of the most used semiconductors because of its highly stable nature. It finds a lot of extensive applications in the telecommunication and computer technology industries in the form of transistors, computer chips, etc.

The observed inherent property of silicon states that it has an indirect electronic band gap, making it unsuitable for emitting light unless it is integrated with other direct-band-gap semiconductor materials to create the optoelectronic devices that supply the pulses of light that drive the information on the internet. This integration makes it a very difficult and expensive process.


In April this year, TU/e presented a game-changer in the chip world, silicon that emits light!


Source: Physics World


Elham Fadaly, Alain Dijkstra and Erik Bakkers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, Jens Renè Suckert at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena in Germany, and an international team were credited for finding the Physics World 2020 Breakthrough of the Year for creating a silicon-based material with a direct band gap that emits light of wavelengths used for optical telecommunications.


To create a direct band gap, Bakkers and his colleague had to look for a way to grow the crystals of silicon-germanium alloy with a hexagonal crystal structure, contrary to the normal diamond-like structure.


By creating a silicon-based material that emits light, Bakkers and colleagues have opened the door to a brand new world of applications for silicon devices. For decades this has been regarded as the “Holy Grail” in the microelectronics industry since it can make computer chips faster than ever.


Artificial Intelligence Spots Prostate Cancer Near Perfectly


In July, researchers of the University of Pittsburgh trained an AI program to recognize prostate cancer by providing it images from more than a million parts of stained tissue slides taken from patient biopsies. The AI was taught how to distinguish between healthy and abnormal tissue by labeling each slide carefully by an expert. The algorithm was then tested on a different set of 1,600 samples taken from 100 consecutive patients.


Source: University of Pittsburgh


Here in the above pathology image, the red region depicts a higher probability of cancer while the blue region depicts a lower probability of cancer.


During testing, the AI demonstrated 98% sensitivity and 97% specificity at detecting prostate cancer — significantly higher than previously reported for algorithms working from tissue slides.


This kind of algorithm can prove to be beneficial in diagnosing lesions that are atypical. Another added advantage is that the machines unlike the humans don’t have any personal biases or past experiences, they are detached from the whole story making the care more standardized.


Conclusion


These were a few of the silver linings to a year when the whole world was brought to a standstill by the COVID-19 pandemic. On one side, where the plastic-eating ‘super-enzyme’ paved the way to a cleaner world, on another side, AI made the process of diagnosing prostate cancer meticulous and faster. Of course, that's just a small taste of the many significant scientific achievements we've seen in 2020. It was a rollercoaster year for all but our researchers managed to make the best of it. So, a very happy new year from all of us at Team Techvik, and we, along with you, will keep moving forward on our path towards something new. Ad Meliora.

References-


1. Plastic-eating ‘super-enzymes’:

Plastic-Eating Super-Enzyme “Cocktail” Offers New Hope for Plastic Waste Solution

2. Closest images of sun ever taken:

Solar Orbiter Returns First Data, Snaps Closest Pictures of the Sun

These are the closest images of the sun ever taken

3. Space-X NASA’s Crew-1 mission:

NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 Mission | NASA

CREW-1 MISSION

NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts headed to International Space Station

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/11/201116005227.htm

4. CRISPR’s Clinical trial triumph:

(PDF) 329. Using CRISPR/Cas9 as a Therapeutic Approach for Leber Congenital Amaurosis 10 (LCA10)

News: CRISPR clinical trials overview 2020 - CRISPR Medicine

5. Artificial Intelligence Spots Prostate Cancer Near Perfectly:

Artificial Intelligence Identifies Prostate Cancer

6. Silicon-based material with a direct band gap:

Silicon-based light emitter is 'Holy Grail' of microelectronics, say researchers

Light from silicon proclaimed as 'Breakthrough of the Year'