Editor’s Picks of The Scientist’s Best Infographics of 2020

This year’s most captivating illustrations tell stories from the micro scale—such as newborn neurons in the adult brain and bacteria in the infant gut—to the scale of entire ecosystems, including reintroduced predators and rising seas.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst
Dec 15, 2020

Interplay between the immune system and the brain


Although immune cells are largely locked out of the central nervous system, they can still keep a close watch on cellular trash being removed from the brain to scan for infection or injury. And conversely, immune cells also send signals of their own that influence brain function.


The bacteria of the infant gut

The microbial communities living in the gastrointestinal tracts of newborn babies have changed a lot in the past century, with beneficial Bifidobacterium species becoming far less prominent, especially among formula-fed infants. Understanding why that is has helped researchers develop probiotics that can restore a more historic microbiome.  


Reintroducing predators to the wild

In the mid-1990s, more than 40 gray wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park, and in the years and decades that followed, researchers attributed the ecosystem’s rejuvenation to the reintroduction of the apex predators. But the nature of the wolves’ influence is still debated. Now, efforts are ongoing to repeat the experiment and try to get to the bottom of how predators affect their environments.


Manipulating a mouse’s memories

Mouse neurons associated with a new memory can be permanently altered by researchers to give them control over their activity. Specifically, scientists typically add channelrhodopsin to neurons in a memory network such that they can activate them with blue light. In this way, animals can be prompted to recall something or even to remember an experience that never happened.


Sex differences in bird coloration is in the genes

In many bird species, males are more brightly colored than females. In some finches, the gene BCO2, which encodes a carotenoid-destroying enzyme, appears to explain this sexual dimorphism, often being expressed in female feathers but not male feathers.


Salty water pushes inland

As the Earth’s atmosphere warms, Arctic ice is melting and sea levels are rising. This pushes salt water further into terrestrial ecosystems, killing forests and threatening farms. The result is a migration of wetland tree species into deciduous and pine forests further inland.


New neurons in the adult brain

Just before the turn of the century, scientists confirmed that adult human brains do in fact generate new neurons. Two decades later, the field of neurogenesis research is beginning to understand how those new neurons integrate into existing neural networks to influence learning and memory.