Protein code, nuclear fusion and the inner workings of Mars – “Science” magazine selects the scientific highlights of the year –

From the atomic nucleus to Mars: The specialist magazine “Science” has selected ten scientific achievements as the highlights of 2021. These include new medical therapies as well as advances in nuclear fusion and genetic insights into history. However, “Science” sees the most important breakthrough of the year as the decoding of protein structure with the help of AI systems – this could significantly advance almost all areas of medicine.

Every year, shortly before Christmas, the specialist magazine “Science” selects the highlights of the year – and lets you review the scientific year again. The top ten include research results and discoveries that are particularly pioneering and significant in their fields. One achievement is singled out as the breakthrough of the year. In 2020 it was the development of vaccines against Covid-19, but in 2019 it was the first photo of a black hole.

The amino acid chains of a protein are complexly folded and intertwined on several levels. © ttsz/ Getty images

The cracked protein code

This year, the “Science” editors voted the decoding of the protein code by AI systems to be the breakthrough in 2021. Two adaptive algorithms have managed to predict the three-dimensional structure of a protein based solely on its amino acid sequence – something that was previously considered almost impossible. Because theoretically there are more conceivable folding possibilities for a longer amino acid chain than there are stars in the cosmos.

At the same time, the three-dimensional structure of proteins is so complex that even mapping with the most modern laboratory technology can take years. This is why only around one percent of all proteins have been deciphered so far. But that has now changed. Because the two adaptive AI systems AlphaFold from the Google research center DeepMind and RoseTTAFold from researchers at the University of Maryland have succeeded in recognizing hidden laws of protein folding.

The two “protein crackers” have since deciphered the structure of 350,000 proteins in the human body and a good thousand other proteins. “This is a two-fold breakthrough,” said Science Editor-in-Chief Holden Thorp. “For one thing, it solves a problem that has been on the to-do list for almost 50 years. On the other hand, it is a groundbreaking technology that will enormously accelerate scientific progress. “

Nuclear fusion and deflected muons

In physics, too, there were two “Science” highlights in 2021. In August, a fusion experiment at the US National Ignition Facility reached a record high for power generation for the first time. The nuclear fusion achieved when a deuterium-tritium mixture was bombarded with laser beams released 1.35 megajoules of energy and came extremely close to the “break-even” point. This describes the point from which the fusion generates more energy than it needs to be used for it.

The second physics highlight concerns a possible reference to particles or forces beyond the physical standard model. The muon g2 experiment in the US measured significant deviations in the anomalous magnetic moment of the muon. This heavier “cousin” of the electron behaves differently than it should when it flies through magnetic fields. This could indicate that the muon is reacting to a previously unknown physical influence.

Seismic data from the Mars InSight probe have provided initial information about the inner workings of our neighboring planet. © Chris Bickel, Science/AAAS, Mars InSight SEIS

Primeval DNA and the inner workings of Mars

A highlight in DNA analysis leads back to the past: this year, several research teams have succeeded in isolating the genetic material of the Neanderthals or our ancestors from cave sediments that are thousands of years old. This prehistoric DNA provides valuable information about the origins, relationships and way of life of our ancestors.

On the other hand, an annual highlight from planetary research is extraterrestrial: NASA’s Mars InSight space probe has for the first time provided more detailed information about the inner workings of the red planet on the basis of seismic measurements. They reveal that our neighboring planet has an unusually thin but multi-part crust, but no lower mantle. In addition, the core of the planet appears to be larger and lighter than previously thought.

Corona therapies, gene scissors and magic mushrooms

Also among the highlights of 2021 are several medical achievements. These include antibody preparations against Covid-19 and other infectious diseases, as well as the first drugs against the coronavirus that can be administered as tablets. The antiviral agents Molnupiravir from Merck and Paxlovid from Pfizer have significantly reduced mortality and the risk of severe courses of Covid-19 in clinical trials.

The “Science” editors also rate the first gene therapies directly in the patient’s body with the help of the CRISPR / Cas gene scissors as medically groundbreaking. The method repaired genetic defects that caused eye disease and liver damage. Another highlight is the use of psychedelic substances against various mental illnesses. Researchers succeeded in using the active ingredient psilocybin contained in “magic mushrooms” to help patients with severe, treatment-resistant depression. Another team successfully used the drug MDMA known as ecstasy for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The development of technologies with which early stages of development of human embryos can be grown from cells in the laboratory, however, is more used for basic research. These blastocysts are not viable, but allow important steps in embryonic development to be explored without the need for real embryos. (Science, doi: 10.1126/science.abn5795)

Quelle: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

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