The Biggest Science News of 2020
The Biggest Science News of 2020

The Biggest Science News of 2020

Neanderthal DNA surprises in modern humans, the first blood test for Alzheimer’s, a discovery of new human salivary glands, and, oh yeah, a pandemic

Kerry Grens
Dec 23, 2020

ABOVE: Two fires in Argentina burned 90 percent of the San Cayetano Provincial Park, which houses a field station that has carried out long-term monitoring of local primates for decades.
BELEN NATALINI

The pandemic’s toll on the research community

Given the collective pivot the globe took toward addressing the coronavirus pandemic, we’re dedicating a separate post to what we heard from scientists this year—their struggles and triumphs, frustrations and joys.

Aside from research on SARS-CoV-2 itself, the pandemic had huge effects on the scientific community. Tragically, the virus claimed the lives of a number of researchers. Lynika Strozier, whose “hands of gold” could extract DNA from small amounts of starting material and who identified numerous new species, was just 35 when she died of COVID-19. Paleobotanist Brian Axsmith died of COVID-19 at age 57. Paleontologist Robert Carroll, former Stanford University President Donald Kennedy, microbiologist Paul Matewele, former Babraham Institute Director Michael Wakelam, HIV researcher Gita Ramjee, and vascular biologist Stephen Schwartz were also among the 1.6 million people who have died from the disease this year.

While a considerable proportion of researchers found themselves struggling to do their work at times this year, others found themselves laid off or furloughed. Women in STEM appear to have taken the greatest hit to their productivity. Academic job opportunities shrunk and don’t seem to have recovered to the hiring levels of past years. 

Nevertheless, a survey of scientists has found the community resilient in the face of lockdowns and other restrictions, and the astounding accomplishments in the development of drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and research techniques related to the coronavirus are a testament to researchers’ creativity and dedication. Scientists managed to keep their science afloat by turning their homes into wet labs and finding new ways to be productive. Scientific conferences went from cancelled or postponed to completely revamped as virtual events, with broadened inclusivity and fewer carbon emissions from travel.

The world still turned, and burned

With all eyes on SARS-CoV-2, it was easy to overlook other big events unleashed by mother nature. Wildfires burned up and down the US West Coast. In California, blazes damaged field sites and threatened astronomical observatories. And on the other side of the globe, in Australia, efforts to shore up vulnerable koala populations suffered, perhaps irreparably. “There’s been so much research progress in recent years to try and improve the health status of these koala populations,” Natasha Speight, a koala disease researcher and veterinarian at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, told The Scientist in January. “It really is a setback to have so many lost from these bushfires.”

Similarly, a park in Argentina where a long-term study of 20 groups of resident howler monkeys had been ongoing for decades saw at least five groups perish in fires this fall. “All these groups that we found, I knew everything about them. I knew who was the son, the daughter, the mother. The first [few days] I was crying all the time,” Martin Kowalewski, a primate ecologist and the director of the Estación Biológica Corrientes field station, told The Scientist. The fires were thought to have been started intentionally by ranchers to stimulate grassland growth, but they then burned out of control, decimating the reserve where the monkeys lived.

Mitochondria in circulation

Electron microscopy image of mitochondria isolated from healthy human blood plasma 
© ALAIN THIERRY, INSERM 

In February, scientists reported that they had found functioning mitochondria in people’s blood. Past studies had shown that mitochondrial DNA could be found in circulation, and at times the organelles might get released from cells in response to damage, but entire, respiring organelles in the blood of healthy individuals was a novel observation.

“The whole thing surprises me,” Joel Riley, who studies how mitochondria can stimulate inflammation at the University of Glasgow and wasn’t involved in the study, told The Scientist at the time. “We know that bits of mitochondria can get kicked out of cells through extracellular vesicles [when they are damaged], but whole mitochondria—that’s pretty cool.” The next step is to figure out what the organelles are doing in circulation.

More human salivary glands

A 3-D reconstruction from histological slides (inset on right) of the newly discovered tubarial gland (yellow; ducts in light blue). The torus tubarius cartilage is colored dark blue and muscle is pink. 
M. Valstar et al., Radiotherapy & Oncology, doi:10.1016/j.radonc.2020.09.034, 2020.  

Humans continue to be full of anatomical surprises, and this year researchers added to our known components a set of salivary glands in the neck that they named the tubarial glands. The tissue, tucked behind the pharynx, likely went unnoticed because it is difficult to reach during surgery and was discovered with a combination of positron emission tomography (PET) and computed tomography (CT) that uses a radioactive tracer that binds to a prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA). Ordinarily, PSMA PET/CT is used to detect prostate cancer, but lead scientist Wouter Vogel, a radiation oncologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, told The Scientist in October, “This scan is extremely sensitive for the salivary glands. So we can see more than ever before.”

Inclusivity gains in STEM

© istock.com, victoriabar

Although a perennial problem, a lack of equity in STEM gained renewed attention in 2020 as scientists advocated for inclusion, anti-racist action, and awareness of the forces that turn away people from underrepresented groups. Black in X, a collection of initiatives to raise the profile of Black scientists in various fields and support their careers, emerged after a racist incident in May between a Black birder and a white woman who wasn’t following a canine leash law in New York City’s Central Park. Black in Neuro, Black in Astro, Black in Chem, and other groups have since organized virtual events and digital networking. “Now that we can finally see each other, we can now support each other,” Black in Micro co-organizer Ariangela Kozik, a postdoc at the University of Michigan, told The Scientist.

This year, several academic journals also came to recognize that their name-change policies could be harming transgender individuals. Cell Press, for instance, adopted a new policy that allows authors to change the name on their publications. It still requires issuing a correction, with the author’s approval, which can reveal more information than authors might wish to provide. Theresa Tanenbaum, a computer scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who has worked on name-change guidance for journals, told The Scientist she advocates for publishers keeping a private record of name changes that would be released only when needed, such as in a legal case.

Alzheimer’s blood test

© ISTOCK.COM, YACOBCHUKOLENA 

The first blood test to sample for blood biomarkers indicative of Alzheimer’s disease became available for physicians in October. C2N Diagnostics’s test measures the ratio of two isoforms of the amyloid-β protein, Aβ42 and Aβ40, and the presence of isoforms of apolipoprotein E (ApoE) associated with Alzheimer’s risk. “If you asked me [five or ten] years ago if there would ever be a blood test for Alzheimer’s, I would have been very skeptical,” Howard Fillit, the executive director and chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, which invested in C2N’s development of the test, told The Scientist. “So the fact that this is on the market now is just amazing.”  

Neanderthal DNA in Africans

© ISTOCK.COM, OLENA YEPIFANOVA

Because modern humans’ interbreeding with Neanderthals took place in Eurasia thousands of years ago, geneticists had assumed that individuals with African ancestry wouldn’t have much Neanderthal DNA in their genomes. Not so. In a study that came out in January, researchers compared African genomes to the Neanderthal reference genome and found a lot more overlap than they had expected—about 17 megabases

This is still just one-third of what’s found in the genomes of people with European and Asian ancestry, and likely represents the migration of people from Europe and Asia who carried with them to Africa the genetic legacy of their ancestors’ intermingling with Neanderthals.

Janet Kelso, a computational biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who was not involved in the study, told The Scientist at the time, “What’s surprising here is the amount. It’s actually a larger proportion than I think people had imagined.”