The 10 biggest science stories of 2022


2023-01-29 16:39:47



The James Webb Space Telescope sends back mind-bending images

One story that delighted millions throughout the year was the successful operation of the James Webb Space Telescope, following its launch at the end of 2021. The first images beamed down in July offered jaw-dropping views of the cosmos. After that, JWST went from strength to strength, whether that be taking pictures of planets in the solar system and further afield, or finding the oldest and most distant galaxies in the known universe.

Multi-country monkeypox outbreak in non-endemic countries

Since May 2022, monkeypox has been reported to WHO from 23 Member States that are not endemic for monkeypox virus, across four WHO regions. Epidemiological investigations are ongoing. The vast majority of reported cases so far have no established travel links to an endemic area and have presented through primary care or sexual health services. The identification of confirmed and suspected cases of monkeypox with no direct travel links to an endemic area is atypical. Early epidemiology of initial cases notified to WHO by countries shows that cases have been mainly reported amongst men who have sex with men (MSM). One case of monkeypox in a non-endemic country is considered an outbreak. The sudden appearance of monkeypox simultaneously in several non-endemic countries suggests that there may have been undetected transmission for some time as well as recent amplifying events.

Carbon dioxide now more than 50% higher than pre-industrial levels

Carbon dioxide measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory peaked for 2022 at 421 parts per million in May, pushing the atmosphere further into territory not seen for millions of years, scientists from NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanography offsite link at the University of California San Diego announced. NOAA's measurements of carbon dioxide at the mountaintop observatory on Hawaii’s Big Island averaged 420.99 parts per million (ppm), an increase of 1.8 ppm over 2021. Scientists at Scripps, which maintains an independent record, calculated a monthly average of 420.78 ppm.  CO2 pollution is generated by burning fossil fuels for transportation and electrical generation, by cement manufacturing, deforestation, agriculture and many other practices. Along with other greenhouse gases, COtraps heat radiating from the planet’s surface that would otherwise escape into space, causing the planet’s atmosphere to warm steadily, which unleashes a cascade of weather impacts, including episodes of extreme heat, drought and wildfire activity, as well as heavier precipitation, flooding and tropical storm activity.   Impacts to the world's oceans from greenhouse gas pollution include increasing sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels, and an increased absorption of carbon, which makes sea water more acidic, leads to ocean deoxygenation, and makes it more difficult for some marine organisms to survive.

NASA’s DART Mission Hits Asteroid in First-Ever Planetary Defense Test

After 10 months flying in space, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – the world’s first planetary defense technology demonstration – successfully impacted its asteroid target on Monday, the agency’s first attempt to move an asteroid in space. As a part of NASA’s overall planetary defense strategy, DART’s impact with the asteroid Dimorphos demonstrates a viable mitigation technique for protecting the planet from an Earth-bound asteroid or comet, if one were discovered. DART targeted the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, a small body just 530 feet (160 meters) in diameter. It orbits a larger, 2,560-foot (780-meter) asteroid called Didymos. Neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth. The mission’s one-way trip confirmed NASA can successfully navigate a spacecraft to intentionally collide with an asteroid to deflect it, a technique known as kinetic impact. The investigation team will now observe Dimorphos using ground-based telescopes to confirm that DART’s impact altered the asteroid’s orbit around Didymos. Researchers expect the impact to shorten Dimorphos’ orbit by about 1%, or roughly 10 minutes; precisely measuring how much the asteroid was deflected is one of the primary purposes of the full-scale test.

Nuclear fusion

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced in December that they had produced the first fusion reaction that created more energy than was used to start it. The long-elusive achievement marked a major breakthrough in harnessing the process that fuels the sun. "This milestone moves us one significant step closer" to "powering our society" with zero-carbon fusion energy, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said. Fusion involves pushing together two nuclei of a lightweight element, such as hydrogen, at a colossal speed, forcing them to fuse. The leftover mass is converted into an enormous amount of energy, according to Einstein's formula E = mc2. Unlike fission, in which atoms are split, fusion requires small amounts of ordinary fuel  the amount of hydrogen in a glass of water could provide enough energy for one person's lifetime  and does not create much radioactive waste, which is why it's been called "the holy grail for the future of nuclear power." 

Transplant promise

A group of Yale scientists reported in the journal Nature this summer that they succeeded in reviving cells in the hearts, liver, kidneys, and brains of pigs that had been lying dead in a lab for an hour. The researchers accomplished the feat by using a device much like a heart-lung machine to pump a custom-made solution, dubbed OrganEx, into the pigs' bodies. The pigs' hearts started beating and sent the solution through their veins. 

New vaccines to fight malaria

Malaria, found in more than 90 countries, kills an estimated 627,000 people every year. Vaccines could help reduce or eliminate the toll, but scientists have struggled to develop a highly effective one. This year, though, the technology used to create mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 has helped a research team led by George Washington University develop two experimental mRNA vaccine candidates that are highly effective in reducing malaria infection and transmission, according to a study published in December in npj Vaccines, an open-access scientific journal in the Nature Portfolio.

AI reveals new antibiotics

Over the course of the past few years, AI has transformed the field of molecular biology. The revolution started with the AlphaFold algorithm, which rapidly predicts the complex three-dimensional structures of proteins, thus aiding the understanding of protein functions and the identification of drug targets. This year, AI has achieved another breakthrough, this time at the other end of the drug discovery pipeline: several groups in 2022 have reported the first successful applications of AI to identify novel antibiotic drugs.

Gigantic Expanse of Sea Ice Breaks Free From Antarctica and Disintegrates

In January 2022, a chunk of Antarctic sea ice, the size of Philadelphia, broke off the Scar Inlet Ice Shelf. The massive piece of ice, known as the Larsen B Embayment, used to apply back pressure against glaciers flowing out into the embayment. Without the embayment, these glaciers will push more ice into the sea and likely contribute to rising sea levels. 

Giant Bacteria- 5000 times bigger than normal

Scientists have discovered the world’s largest known bacterium, which comes in the form of white filaments the size of human eyelashes, in a swamp in Guadeloupe. At about 1cm long, the strange organism, Thiomargarita magnifica, is roughly 50 times larger than all other known giant bacteria and the first to be visible with the naked eye. The thin white strands were discovered on the surfaces of decaying mangrove leaves in shallow tropical marine marshes. The discovery was a surprise because, according to models of cell metabolism, bacteria should simply not grow this big. Previously scientists had suggested an upper possible size limit about 100 times smaller than the new species.