News from the scientific world

What are the scientific breakthrough of 2019?

To start off this 2020, I would like to use this post to present the scientific breakthrough of the past year according to Science.

If 2018 was the year of Biology (thanks to revolution of single cells analysis, that allows scientists to study the genetic material of a single cell and the possibility of marking it and following its behavior during time), 2019 celebrates Astrophysics.

Breakthrough of the year: The first picture of a black hole (have a look here if you missed my post about it), obtained from the Event Horizon Telescope Consortium (Ehtc). As you can read from my previous post, scientists from around the world collaborated to take a picture of M87, a supermassive black hole in the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years distant from us.

The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs: in September, geologists from the University of Texas, analysing the rocks present on an area of Chicxulub in the Gulf of Mexico, were able to piece together what happened the day an asteroid hit Earth. When it happened, the impact gave rise to fires for thousands of miles and a tsunami that reached land up to Illinois and it obscured the sunlight, producing a lasting cooling of Earth, that determined the extinction of many life forms.

People’s choice: #1 – Denisovians. In June, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Rome, La Sapienza, analysing and comparing the DNA of these two species, was able to reconstruct a cross between Neanderthal and Denisovian (Neandersovan). This will help us better understand our evolutionary history and what and how made us humans like this (as an example, have a look below for a comparison between Neanderthal and Sapiens).

Since diverging from a common ancestor over 500,000 years ago, Neanderthals and modern humans evolved distinctive anatomies. From discovermagazine.com

People’s choice: #2 – Hope against Ebola. Scientists identified two new antibodies that significantly reduced the Ebola mortality rate. The first of these antibodies was isolated from a survivor of the 1996 epidemy and the other one from a mix of molecules produced in mice with a “humanized” immune system. Around 70% of patients that received one of the two antibodies in a randomized clinical trial survived.

Quantum supremacy using a programmable superconducting processor. Sycamore, Google quantic computer, was able to obtain the so-called quantic supremacy. This means that this computer performed, in few minutes and for the first time ever, a series of operations that “traditional” computers would perform in tens of thousand of years. At the end of December its programmers used the quantic computer to run an algorithm that produces a sequence of casual numbers, the first real practical application of the quantic processor.

Arrokoth, the far-far away object. Arrokoth, code-name MU69, is an object seen by New Horizons, the Nasa probe, in a region further away from Neptune. It is only around 36km large and it has a pretty peculiar shape (have a look below). It does not have any craters and it is believed that its two lobes formed independently in the first moments of the Solar System. However, the best is yet to come: new observations are already planned in 2020, in order to better understand this very odd object at the end of our Solar System.  

First Color Image of Arrokoth (2014 MU69). Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Published: January 2, 2019. From solarsystem.nasa.gov

People’s choice: #4 – a new drug to treat cystic fibrosis. Trikafta, a new drug efficient in many cases of cystic fibrosis, received the FDA approval in October. This therapy is a triple combination and it is intended to patients with the most common mutations of this disease. In particular, the drug turned out very efficient in converting the disease from degenerative to chronic: in two studies conducted on 510 patients the administration of Trikafta determined a significant improvement of the forced expiratory volume, an index of the progression of the disease, as well as the chloride in the sweat, the number of the pulmonary exacerbations and the body mass index.

Microbes against malnutrition. Every year, millions of malnourished kids can not properly recover, even after properly treated, due to the lack of microbiome restoration. This year, a team of scientists managed to develop a cheap and simple supplement that stimulates the growth of a healthy intestinal microbiome. Currently, the supplement was proven safe in a small clinical trial and a bigger court is under monitoring at the moment, in order to validate the first encouraging results. The impact of this discovery is incredibly significant in order to mitigate the burden of malnutrition.

The AI that plays poker. Pluribus, the artificial intelligence created by Facebook and experts of the Carnegie Mellon University, won Texas Hold’em professionals in 10 thousand rounds, winning a very rich jackpot. And what is even more astonishing is the fact that this AI was created in just 8 days, using a 64 core server with less than 512 megabytes of ram. Pluribus faced 12 poker professionals (both humans and other AIs), winning an average of 5$ per round, with hourly wins od around 1000$: according to the researchers, it is a significant margin of victory since it overcomes the speed at which professional players typically win against experts and beginners.

Come back next week, we will have a look at what to expect from this 2020!

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