Over the past 12 months, a global pandemic caused the world to come to a near standstill. Yet despite COVID-19 being the primary event of 2020, numerous other significant discoveries and events occurred during this disruptive year. Here are nine such events and discoveries from 2020 you may not have heard much about.
1. Due to the complexity of vaccine development, creating a new vaccine can take more than a decade. The fastest vaccine developed before 2020 was for the mumps, and that process took four years. But the biotech company Moderna was able to create a COVID-19 vaccine in just two days. The speed of creation was due in large part to advances in technology and biomedical knowledge. For instance, a key first step in creating modern vaccines is determining the genetic sequence of the virus. The first complete genome sequence from a free-living organism (Haemophilus Influenzae) only occurred in 1995. When the coronavirus-induced SARS outbreak began in late 2002, it took scientists six months—until April 2003—to sequence the genome of the virus. In comparison, it took researchers in 2020 a mere 33 days to sequence the genome of the COVID-19 virus.
2. For more than 240 days, beginning in 2019 and continuing to March 2, Australia endured one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in modern history. The amount of land damaged (more than 10 million hectares) is almost as large as the land area of England (13 million hectares). Ecologists estimate that nearly half a billion animals have died as a result of the fires.
3. The completion of the world’s first crewed commercial spaceflight occurred in August. The Crew Dragon spaceship, a joint venture of NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, carried two NASA astronauts into orbit and docked to the space station two months ago, before returning to earth. Since NASA’s space-shuttle program ended a decade ago, American astronauts have relied on Russia to take them into space on Soyuz spacecraft.
4. A new blood-testing technique could help researchers detect Alzheimer’s disease prior to onset or in those showing early signs of dementia. The approach could be less invasive and costly than current brain imaging and spinal-fluid tests, says the National Institutes of Health, enabling earlier treatments and testing of novel approaches.
5. Archaeologists have unearthed 100 vividly painted wooden coffins (sarcophagi) containing the mummified remains of individuals. Based on names inscribed on the coffins, researchers have dated all the burials to the 26th Dynasty (688–525 B.C.) In comparison to biblical times, this would be from about the time of King Hezikiah (2 Kings 18:1) to the time of Ezra and Haggai. Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said, “We think that the owners of these coffins are the priests and high officials of the temple of the cat goddess, Bastet.”
6. The first no-kill, lab-grown meat went on sale for the first time in a restaurant in Singapore. The American company Just Inc. created chicken nuggets using cellular agriculture. The process takes extracted animal cells from live chickens, adds plant-based nutrients, and grows the “meat” at a rapid rate using a bioreactor. The process is reportedly comparable to brewing beer. The complete process takes about 14 days, compared to the 45 days it takes to grow a chicken for consumption.
7. Artificial intelligence (AI) is able to detect breast cancer with near perfect accuracy. The most common method to screen for breast cancer is digital mammography, or X-ray imaging. But the difficulty in reading such images can lead to false positives and false negatives. Google’s DeepMind AI system outperformed six human radiologists in spotting abnormalities on the X-ray images of nearly 29,000 women. For the study, the AI system demonstrated a 5.7 percent reduction in false positives and a 9.4 percent reduction in false negatives in the United States. With more than 43 million exams a year, the change could lead to earlier detection of cancer in about 400,000 women a year.
8. NASA has confirmed, for the first time, water on the sunlit surface of the moon. According to the space agency, this discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places. The concentrations of water are roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water trapped in a cubic meter of soil spread across the lunar surface. In comparison, the Sahara desert has 100-times the amount of water detected in the lunar soil. NASA says it’s eager to learn all it can about the presence of water on the Moon in advance of sending the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024 and establishing a sustainable human presence there by the end of the decade.
9. A team of Australian scientists mapping the seafloor of the Great Barrier Reef discovered a coral reef taller than the Empire State Building. Coral reefs are large underwater structures composed of coral, the skeletons of colonial marine invertebrates. Many animal species in the ocean depend on such reefs for survival. “This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our ocean,” said Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute. “The state of our knowledge about what’s in the ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears, and hands in the deep ocean, we have the capacity to explore like never before. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us.”