We have truly experienced a year like no other. The loss of normality has left us missing human contact with friends and family. The loss of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented. The 1619 project outlined the history of white supremacy in our country while continued violence against people of color made headlines. And the frightening attack on the U.S. Capitol in January highlights continued American extremism and racism.
But, through all of the turbulence, researchers continued to discover and innovate. Iʼd like to share how the work of researchers has been so important for the world by reflecting on this yearʼs research breakthroughs, selected by the journal Science, and to highlight how researchers at UNC are already working in those spaces.
The breakthrough of the year was, unsurprisingly, research on SARS-Cov-2 and COVID-19. While the world struggled, advances in research to understand the new virus and efforts to put a halt to the global pandemic were extraordinary. More than 200,000 peer-reviewed papers on this subject were published during 2020. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control also offered perspectives on COVID-19 science and research.
The rapid response to the pandemic demonstrated the critical need for a robust research infrastructure. A call for U.S. research infrastructure is outlined in NIHʼs Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP) 2021-2025 strategic plan entitled Infrastructure for Innovation. It is comforting that President Biden recognizes the importance of scientific research as demonstrated by the appointment of Eric Lander as the new director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and by elevating the office to a cabinet-level position.
Runners-up for Scienceʼs breakthrough of the year include several important advances across the fields of gene editing, the global climate crisis, astronomy, artificial intelligence (AI), infectious diseases, the origins of human civilization, and how our current civilization is still reckoning with racism and equity.
Thanks to the basic science work of Emmanuelle Carpenter and Jennifer Doudna, both of whom won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to fix gene mutations causing disease continues to make advancements in treatments. Researchers in UNCʼs clinical immunotherapy program use this tool to re-engineer cells from a patientʼs immune system and create modified cells that recognize and direct a specific attack against that patientʼs cancer. Patient-specific treatments are employed by scientists in UNCʼs Precision Medicine program, using genomics to identify gene variants that could be targets of CRISPR editing. Last year, we highlighted CRISPR genome editing and the impact of this technology on individuals and society during 2020 University Research Week.
The global climate crisis was another notable breakthrough. The 2020 wildfire season was the largest recorded in Californiaʼs modern history with 4,257,863 acres burned. Additionally, an unprecedented number of Australia’s forests have burnt down. NASAʼs climate change website has an extensive collection of examples regarding global warming. President Biden has prioritized the climate crisis by naming John Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate. The North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience plan outlines warnings about the effects of climate change on the state, and it provides a roadmap to resilience. The UNC Institute for the Environment studies climate, extreme heat, air quality, and ways to change our current course. Researchers in the Gillings School of Global Public Healthʼs Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering are focused on air quality and atmospheric processes, human exposure and health effects, and sustainable water resources.
The origins of fast radio bursts (FRBs) — short flashes of radio waves from distant galaxies — were also featured on Scienceʼs list. Astronomers studying FRBs believe they have finally found their source, but they still donʼt know exactly how magnetars produce such bursts. Carolina researchers have been studying the universe for over 100 years. The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the CoSMS Institute have played pivotal roles to advance our understanding of the universe. In a recent Science article, our own Chris Clemens and co-investigators identified and measured lithium in the atmosphere of burned-out stars called white dwarfs. The study is important for tracking the galactic evolution of lithium.
Back on Earth, researchers have developed an AI program that predicts protein structures by modeling the amino acid interactions that govern its three-dimensional shape. A proteinʼs precise shape determines its biochemical functions, the knowledge of which is critical for researchers to uncover mechanisms of disease and develop new drugs. UNC researcher Michael Kosorok uses AI for decision-making and patient care.
A study of 64 HIV-infected people who have been healthy for years without antiretroviral drugs revealed a link between their success and where the virus is located in their genomes. Although this will not be a cure, the finding points to a strategy that may allow infected people to live without treatment. The UNC HIV Cure Center has developed a public/private partnership with Viiv Healthcare to form Qura Therapeutics. Current research at Qura centers on the concept of “induce and reduce,” a therapeutic approach that affects the virus while minimizing the impact on the body beyond the hidden infected cells. The UNC Center for AIDS Research provides infrastructure to support clinical research, behavioral research, research into mechanisms at the molecular level, and educational outreach. The Global HIV Prevention and Treatment Clinical Trials Unit is dedicated to developing and conducting research of HIV prevention, disease, associated opportunistic infections, and therapy complications.
In yet another breakthrough, researchers confirmed a series of animal-headed hunters sketched on cave walls in Indonesia is more than 40,000 years old. The age of the paintings makes them the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world. As Michael Price quotes April Nowell, “the findings … help dispel … [the] mistaken notion that humanity first became fully modern in Europe and [this and other recent findings] continues to underscore … the importance of the record outside Europe.” A story from the April 2020 issue of Endeavors profiles UNC archeologists Benjamin Arbuckle and Heather Lapham, who study ancient animal remains, texts, and iconography to understand how relationships with animals changed peoplesʼ lives and the world — which highlights why the recently uncovered 40,000-year-old sketches are a breakthrough of the year.
Confronting racism and the journey toward reconciliation was as important a breakthrough in 2020 as research on COVID-19. As stated by Tanisha Williams of Bucknell University: “People of color across the board are struggling … Itʼs a systemic problem.” The events of 2020 have many of us in academia and research learning the ways that systemic racism pervades our community, and we are committed to addressing it. As Williams continues: “I definitely feel like our voices are being heard, and in a different way … But itʼs not going to be a quick fix … we have a long road.”
Across the board, we researchers have a passion to fix the world as illustrated by the scientific breakthroughs of 2020. But our passion is often myopic. My hope for 2021 is that what occurred in 2020 — and before — encourage us to mindfully address the pain that our colleagues have endured and work together to create a better research community for all, where our diverse perspectives and experiences fuel even greater breakthroughs.