May 26, 2022

Choppers on Mars and RNA jabs: the best scientific advances of 2021

Some of Australia’s most prominent researchers nominate the most surprising, important and inspiring scientific developments...

Some of Australia’s most prominent researchers nominate the most surprising, important and inspiring scientific developments of the past 12 months

With all of the worrying news emerging from the fields of health and science this year, some of the incredible advances that occurred may have been overlooked. But there have been many weird and wonderful feats in the world of research.

Life-saving tests, treatments and vaccines were developed and rolled-out – including those led by Australian doctors – and a world-first malaria vaccine for children was endorsed by the World Health Organization. A new species of dinosaur was discovered in south-west Queensland, adding to our understanding about how they evolved. We learned from Nasa that the much-feared asteroid, Apophis, won’t hit Earth for at least 100 years, so that’s a relief.

The development and the success of RNA-based vaccines has had enormous global impact during the past year. There’s enormous short-term success but it also opens up a lot of potential long-term opportunities in delivering RNA as a vaccine for emerging diseases and also as a means of developing new therapeutics to treat a whole range of disorders.

To get a new type of vaccine out there requires very big clinical trials because a crucial thing with a vaccine, of course, is safety.

Antarctica is a bellwether for climate change impacts, with recent evidence of ecosystem collapse and that a major ice shelf in west Antarctica may fail within the decade.

So for me, this year’s most exciting advance is not a discovery but solid investment in future Antarctic science, heralded by the arrival of Australia’s new icebreaker, RSV Nuyina, the most advanced polar research vessel in the world, and the initiation of not one, but three new university-based Antarctic research initiatives.”

From my point of view, the origins of Sars-CoV-2 has been the big story.

Knowing from where viruses and pandemics start is crucial to understanding the interactions between humans and animals, and how this is influenced by human behaviour, industrialisation, and climate change.

In both my personal and professional roles, it’s incredibly difficult to look past the incredibly rapid development of effective Covid-19 vaccines in terms of amazing scientific advances over the last couple of years.

But, in my other life I’m a wannabe astronaut, and I am completely astonished by Nasa’s Ingenuity helicopter, which has made 18 successful flights on a whole other planet in 2021!

I think the most important finding that came out in 2021 is a study relating to ocean conditions around the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), which locks up in total about seven metres of global sea level. Lose the WAIS and hundreds of millions of people worldwide would be displaced. The WAIS is known to be the most vulnerable component of the Antarctic ice sheet system and uncertainty about future melt rates is one of the biggest unanswered questions in polar climate science.

The published ocean measurements were taken adjacent to Thwaites Glacier, which is the most rapidly changing outlet of the WAIS. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle, the study documents the first ever temperature, salinity and oxygen measurements at the Thwaites ice shelf front. The measurements revealed warm water impinging from all sides on what are known as ‘pinning points’ of the glacier – these are critical to ice-shelf stability.

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