Though history will remember 2020 as the year the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, scientists continued to study the natural world and advance our understanding of it. Several scientific breakthroughs were announced in 2020, including the discovery of new species, the unearthing of surprising archaeological remains, and, of course, the remarkably fast development of a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. As we welcome in a new year, let’s take a look back at some of the scientific highlights from a difficult year. And be sure to nominate your favorite science news story from 2020 in the comments section.
1. A mammal with a duck-like bill and a tail like a beaver’s, the platypus is such a strange animal that some dismissed early specimens as fakes. What trait did scientists add to the platypus’ list of oddities in 2020?
2. What items were found along with the 9,000-year-old remains of a young woman in the high Andes of Peru?
3. Google offshoot DeepMind developed an artificial intelligence network that made a huge leap in solving what grand scientific challenge?
The 3D structure of a protein predicted by artificial intelligence (blue) and experimentally determined (green) show a high degree of matching. Credit: DeepMind
Proteins are essential to life, and their function largely depends on their 3D structure. During a challenge in November, DeepMind’s AlphaFold 2 AI was able to accurately predict how proteins folded from 1D amino acid sequences into their final structure. The innovation is expected to have far-reaching impacts in the life sciences and medicine.
4. Following an unprecedented worldwide effort, a vaccine for COVID-19 was developed in under a year — an astonishing medical achievement. The COVID-19 vaccines are a new type of vaccines called:
The COVID-19 vaccines are a new type of vaccine that use mRNA to protect against infectious diseases. According to the CDC, “To trigger an immune response, many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies. Not mRNA vaccines. Instead, they teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.”
5. A team discovered a trove of previously unknown species in the Bolivian Andes, including one of the smallest amphibians in the world, the…
The species were discovered in the Zongo Valley cloud forest, just 30 miles from La Paz. Other species found included the mountain fer-de-lance viper, the Bolivian flag snake, and the devil-eyed frog, which was thought to be extinct. Learn more about the expedition: Trove of new species discovered in hidden Bolivian valley
6. After the gas phosphine was discovered in its atmosphere, some astronomers pondered if there could be life on what planet?
Image of Venus and its thick clouds taken in two bands of ultraviolet light by the Venus-orbing Akatsuki, a Japanese robotic satellite. Credit: ISAS, JAXA, Akatsuki; Processing: Meli thev
Phosphine gas is produced by microorganisms on Earth, but speculations about its presence on Venus — or even whether it exists on the planet at all — have proved controversial. The truth may be out there, but for now many astronomers await further observations and research.
7. What fell by seven percent during 2020?
8. What did Earth Institute scientists discover more than a mile under the ice of northwest Greenland?
The huge ancient lake bed was “the first-ever discovery of such a sub-glacial feature anywhere in the world. Apparently formed at a time when the area was ice-free but now completely frozen in, the lake bed may be hundreds of thousands or millions of years old, and contain unique fossil and chemical traces of past climates and life.” Read the full article.
9. Which of the following had devastating fires during 2020?
Natural-color satellite image of smoke and fire in California, August 19, 2020. Credit: MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC
The Western United States also experienced a record-breaking fire season, and with 30 named storms, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active ever. Scientists have linked increasing and intensifying extreme weather events to climate change.
10. In May, Earth Institute researchers announced that dangerous combinations of what two things were already emerging across the globe?
The study found that the warming climate was already producing potentially dangerous combinations of heat and humidity that have rarely if ever been experienced by humans. Read the full story.