The science stories likely to make headlines in 2021 – Science Magazine

As biomedical scientists continue to battle the deadly pandemic this year to help the world return to normalcy, researchers across the disciplines still aim to hit big milestones or launch new projects despite the challenges brought by COVID-19. European scientists will also have to contend with the aftermath of Brexit. Many U.S. scientists, in contrast, have a more hopeful political outlook, with some likely to play an invigorated role in tackling another global crisis, climate change, after President-elect Joe Biden, who has vowed to make it a top priority, is sworn in this month. In this section, Science’s news staff forecasts areas of research and policy we expect to make headlines this year, from protecting the high seas’ biodiversity to probing how ancient humans interacted.


Climate change sized up

Nearly 8 years have passed since the fifth assessment report from the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the famed body of volunteer climate scientists that since 1990 has chronicled humanity’s persistent warming of the planet. The sixth installment, crafted by more than 700 scientists and delayed by the pandemic, will come out in sections this year and next, and it’s expected to further sharpen the picture of the human impact on climate. Its findings will be bolstered by a new generation of climate models and scenarios, fed by indicators of unabated global change: data showing accelerating sea level rise; rapid ice melt at the poles; and waves of extreme heat, drought, and fire. In November, the world’s countries will meet in Scotland’s Glasgow for the next U.N. climate summit, where they are expected to increase the ambitions of their pledged cuts in greenhouse gases and agree on a full set of rules to implement the Paris agreement. Among the attendees will be the United States, which President-elect Joe Biden has said will rejoin the pact.


WHO probes coronavirus origin

The launch of immunization campaigns in many countries has raised hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic can be brought to an end. But how exactly it started remains murky, and a World Health Organization international team of 10 scientists will travel to China several times this year as part of an investigation into the pandemic coronavirus’ origins—a politically sensitive mission because the United States and China have sparred over who is to blame for the pandemic. The team hopes to discover the virus’ closest relatives in bats, where and how it jumped to humans, whether another species acted as an intermediate host, and, most important, how we can prevent other pandemic viruses from emerging.


Repairing frayed U.S.-Chinese ties

Restoring U.S.-Chinese scientific collaborations to health could be a test of President-elect Joe Biden’s success in negotiating with the Asian superpower on trade, immigration, and security concerns. A new U.S. government–sponsored forum on science, technology, and national security will advise the new administration on how to strike the right balance between openness and preventing the theft of new technology. A new U.S. law provides stiff penalties for federal grant applicants who fail to disclose all sources of funding when submitting a proposal, based on the assumption that greater transparency is the best way to monitor ties with China and other entities posing potential threats to U.S. security. University leaders are hoping Biden will reverse President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies and avoid ratcheting up economic and political tensions. But prominent Republicans in Congress are threatening even more punitive steps against China.


Drugs tailored for COVID-19

To complement mass vaccinations against COVID-19, drug companies this year will dash to custom design drugs that block the pandemic coronavirus and treat the disease’s symptoms. Even if many people receive one of the new, highly effective vaccines approved in recent weeks by regulators, the virus is expected to remain endemic. In 2020, only the antiviral remdesivir and a handful of other drugs, all originally designed to treat other conditions, showed even limited benefits against the disease. To identify new drug candidates, researchers have deployed artificial intelligence and supercomputers, and more than 590 experimental drugs are in development, according to a leading pharmaceutical industry tracker. For example, researchers have high hopes for compounds that disrupt reproduction of the pandemic virus by inhibiting one of its two proteases. Cocktails of such therapies could tame the virus, an approach used successfully against HIV. The protease inhibitors and other compounds look promising in cell and animal studies. But studies on human volunteers are only getting started, and it could take years to pass safety and efficacy reviews.

A “sky crane” landing device is designed to lower a 1-ton NASA rover to a soft landing on Mars.



New rovers for Red Planet

Mars’s thin air makes it hard to slow a probe to a soft landing. Of the 18 robotic probes sent to the planet’s surface in the past 50 years, eight have crashed. This year, two more will attempt a touchdown. On 18 February, NASA’s SUV-size rover, Perseverance, will take the plunge, slowed by parachutes and retrorockets on a “sky crane” platform. After landing in Jezero crater, near a fossilized river delta, the rover will collect rock samples for eventual return to Earth. Around the same time, China’s Tianwen-1 mission will arrive with an orbiter, a lander platform, and a rover the size of a golf cart. Officials have chosen a landing site not far from Jezero, along the southern edge of Utopia Planitia, a broad plain that may have been repaved by ancient flows of mud. A successful touchdown would be China’s first on Mars.


A sharper view of proteins

Researchers aim this year to sharpen the resolution of cryo–electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technique for studying protein structures that may yield new insights into their roles in maintaining human health and causing disease. Another technique, x-ray crystallography, has long been the gold standard for mapping individual atoms within a 3D protein structure. But it only works for proteins that can be packed into crystals. Cryo-EM doesn’t require crystals, and its resolution has steadily improved over the past decade. In 2020, it crossed the threshold of atomic resolution as researchers using cryo-EM microscopes equipped with improved electron detectors and software mapped the structure of apoferritin, an iron-binding protein. That protein is unusually rigid, which made it easier to hold steady during cryo-EM mapping. Next, researchers want to image less rigid proteins. Success would be a boon to structural biologists, allowing them to generate highly detailed maps of large proteins and complexes of multiple proteins that cannot be crystallized.


Webb telescope nears launch

The long wait will soon be over: NASA’s much-delayed flagship observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is set to finally take to the skies on 31 October. JWST is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, with a 6.5-meter-wide mirror that has six times its predecessor’s light-gathering power. The gold-coated, honeycombed mirror will be cooled so it can collect the infrared light of distant objects, red-shifted by the universe’s expansion. JWST will be sensitive enough to scrutinize the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets for signs of life and gather the light of the universe’s first stars and galaxies. The $8.8 billion spacecraft, which will cost billions more and launch years later than originally planned, recently endured final tests—violent shaking to simulate launch. This month, engineers are unfolding its mirror and unfurling its multilayered Sun shield one last time to check that all is well. By midyear, JWST will be packed up and shipped to French Guiana, where it will be loaded onto a European Ariane 5 rocket. Next stop: deep space.


Reactor aims for energy gain

The Joint European Torus (JET), the world’s largest fusion reactor, will this year embark on a campaign to generate substantial amounts of fusion power. The U.K.-based JET is a tokamak, which uses powerful magnets to constrain a hot plasma so that atomic nuclei crash together and fuse, releasing energy. After an upgrade, JET has a new metallic lining and extra heating power; in this year’s trials, it will be fed a potent mix of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (D-T)—a fuel rarely used because radioactive tritium needs careful handling and cleanup. In 1997, the last time this fuel mix was used, JET generated 16 megawatts of power for a few seconds, well short of the power consumed to make it happen. The new campaign will initially aim for similar power levels but try to sustain them for longer. That will help in planning for the huge ITER reactor, under construction in France, which has a similar shape and lining. ITER is due to start operations in 2025, but will not begin to use D-T fuel until the mid 2030s.


Gut health for malnourished kids

Help may arrive this year for millions of malnourished children who remain sickly and fail to fully recover even after receiving proper nutrition and treatments for being underfed. Pandemic-related disruptions and job losses are expected to cause the number of such children to skyrocket. One problem for underfed children is disruption of the gut microbiome, which leads to an immature, inefficient digestive system that stunts growth. To repair the microbiomes, health specialists are looking forward to results of a study in Bangladesh that evaluated a low-cost nutritional supplement; it’s a mix of easy-to-find ingredients, such as chickpeas, bananas, and soy and peanut flours. In 2019, this team reported that in experiments in mice and pigs, followed by a monthlong pilot study of 60 children, the supplement led to gut repair, as indicated by changes in blood markers. The study did not last long enough to test effects on growth. Since then, these researchers have been comparing the intervention with an existing supplement in a larger, 3-month trial of malnourished children.

A new treatment could help children suffering from malnutrition, such as this boy at a treatment center for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.



U.N. to protect high seas

Few rules protect biodiversity in the two-thirds of the ocean that lies outside nations’ sovereign waters. This year, the United Nations is expected to finalize the first treaty specifically intended to change that. The pact is expected to provide a way to designate marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas; researchers have been developing a list of candidates and supporting evidence. The draft language also sets minimum standards for environmental impact assessments that nations would be required to conduct before starting commercial activities that might harm marine life. A new, international scientific and technical body, similar to one that manages marine life around Antarctica, would review MPA proposals. The treaty draft also provides for a system to manage genetic sequences taken from marine organisms living in the high seas.


New clues to ancient societies

Expect to see studies of ancient humans follow new paths this year, as researchers combine analyses of ancient DNA with other molecular and microbial clues to examine social ties and migrations. Scientists will merge DNA evidence with data from proteins and isotopes, as well as microfossils and pathogens from bones, tooth plaque, and fossilized poop. Such studies this year could help determine which early Celtic family members inherited wealth. They could help identify the homeland of the biblical Philistines and clarify the identities of early Anglo-Saxons and Greeks in Europe, as well as mummies in China and Egypt.


Stingier vaccine injury payments

An obscure $4 billion U.S. government fund that compensates people injured by vaccines is poised to become more tight-fisted this month. Changes proposed by the Trump administration will likely take effect in mid-January, making it more complicated and time consuming for people to win a payout if they sustain shoulder injuries after incorrectly administered injections with flu, tetanus, and other vaccines. The new rules won’t affect people who might be injured by COVID-19 vaccines, who would need to apply to a different government program for compensation. But claims that other vaccines caused shoulder injuries have grown on the heels of expanded influenza vaccination and a 2010 paper in which government scientists first described “shoulder injury related to vaccine administration.”


Cancer drug nears approval

For more than 3 decades, scientists have dreamed of shrinking tumors by shutting off a protein called KRAS whose growth signals drive many cancer types. KRAS was thought to be impervious to drugs, in part because it offered no obvious pockets that inhibitors could target. But multiple companies have now developed compounds that fit into a groove on some cancer-promoting mutant KRAS proteins and curb their signals. The drugs have shown promising results, first in rodents and then in cancer patients. In December 2020, Amgen asked the Food and Drug Administration to review its KRAS drug, sotorasib, setting the stage for approval this year of the first member of this novel drug class. The drug could first be licensed for use in certain lung cancer patients. Another firm is expected to submit its KRAS drug for approval this year as well.

Curated and edited by Jeffrey Brainard.

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