Scientific breakthroughs are “discoveries that have a major impact on follow-up scientific research.” According to the journal Science, the research breakthrough of the year for 2021 was protein structure predictions. The 2021 People’s Choice award, chosen by Science readers, also placed it at their top-billing. Understanding the structure of hundreds of thousands of proteins offers insights into biological mechanisms and potential to identify new drug targets. Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven software can now predict accurate protein structures for thousands of proteins and their isoforms and complexes of interacting proteins.
Significant research breakthroughs are highlighted annually by Science. Several runners up were also included on their list:
- Ancient soil DNA comes of age are studies of ancient DNA from the soil of cave floors. Nuclear DNA from human and animal occupation of three caves revealed the identity of cave dwellers. Spain’s Estatuas Cave revealed the genetic identity and sex of humans who lived there 80,000 to 113,000 years ago. In Georgia’s Satsurblia Cave, researchers identified a female human genome from an unknown line of Neanderthals, traces of bison, and an extinct wolf. Mexico’s Chiquihuite Cave revealed that the cave bears’ descendants migrated toward Alaska after the last ice age.
- Fusion’s day in the sun refers to fusion reactions that produce energy. The U.S. National Ignition Facility reported a fusion reaction that came close to producing more energy than the laser energy needed to initiate it at a plasma physics conference. Although, significant in-progress materials science and engineering challenges remain before fusion becomes a practical source of energy.
- Potent pills boost COVID-19 arsenal highlights the development of antiviral drugs in preventing symptoms and death if taken early in infection. Some antivirals have received FDA emergency use authorization, and several more are in trials. These drugs are the first line of defense in the absence of vaccines against new strains of viruses or variants of existing viruses.
- Artificial antibodies tame infectious diseases illustrates how monoclonal antibodies (mABs) can regulate immune responses or mark tumor cells for destruction. But few mABs have gained approval for infectious diseases in the United States (limited Ebola, inhalational anthrax, recurrent Clostridium difficile, RSV in high-risk infants, and HIV in people for whom all drugs have failed). The FDA granted emergency use authorization to three SARS-COV-2 mABs for COVID-19 treatment. Work is underway to develop mABs to treat other viral-induced diseases, such as influenza, Zika, RSV, and cytomegalovirus. Advances in cloning and X-ray crystallography make it possible to create and screen many more mABs.
- At last, a crack in particle physics’ standard model describes the muon particle, a heavier, unstable electron cousin. The muon is more magnetic than predicted and gives scientists an indirect way to search for additional, undiscovered particles. Researchers fired a beam of muon particles into a magnetic field, where they twirl like compass needles at a rate that depends on their magnetism. This year, they proved that result was not a fluke.
- CRISPR fixes genes inside the body by reducing a toxic liver protein, transthyretin (TTR) amyloidosis. Six patients received an infusion of tiny fat balls encasing a guide RNA, and the RNA instructions for CRISPR’s genome-snipping enzyme showed signs of disabling the gene. Within four weeks, average blood levels of TTR dropped significantly. Although it will be months before knowing whether this treatment reduced disease symptoms, the data are promising.
- Embryo ‘husbandry’ opens windows into early development by reporting on methods for growing mouse embryos in vitro for 11 days, a week longer than before. The embryos grew organs and sprouted hind legs. Other investigators devised substitutes or made replicas of blastocysts-stage embryos using human embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, and even skin cells undergoing a transition to iPS cells. The normal blastocyst implants into the uterus and is the first embryonic stage to feature specialized cells. These substitutes could offer an essential alternative for understanding the initial mechanisms of embryonic differentiation.
The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) states that fundamental science leads to understanding living systems and life processes. The institute emphasizes that “breakthroughs emerge from complex foundations of fundamental knowledge contributed by many people over many years.” Furthermore, “this knowledge leads to better ways to predict, prevent, diagnose, and treat disease,” adding that breakthroughs, “come from unexpected and often surprising areas.” This year’s breakthrough picks by the Science and its readers illustrate NIGMS’s ideas.