Best Scientific Discoveries and Breakthroughs of 2021

The past twelve months have been a bumper year for science.

A striking example of the advances made in 2021 is the work conducted on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to get this powerful instrument ready for launch, which luckily proceeded without a hitch.

But, even before the launch progressed safely and smoothly on Christmas Day, researchers were hard at work pushing the boundaries of fields such as chemistry, biology, medicine, and physics.

Physics: Imaging The Magnetic Field Around A Supermassive Black Hole

M87 Black Hole in Polarized Light
An Image of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87. The image shows the polarization of magnetic fields around the black hole revealing the conditions found around such objects in stunning detail. EHT Collaboration

At the start of April, using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), astronomers captured an image of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the GalaxyMessier 87 (M87). This new image revealed previously unknown details about the physics of these objects.

"We imaged M87 in polarized light. Polarization is a property of light that can tell us something about magnetic fields in the ring around the black hole," assistant professor at Department of Astrophysics and coordinator of the research, Monika Moscibrodzka, told Newsweek.

"Until this discovery, we have never ever seen how they could be shaped just near the black hole."

Moscibrodzka explains the importance of the breakthrough and its wider scientific context: "We now know a little more about how jets of material are produced by black holes and launched into space.

"They start just near the event horizon so definitely, they have something to do with the energy of these objects. Before this image, this was a theory but this is the first time we have had direct observations of such phenomena.

"And we do see these jets not only in M87 but also in many other galaxies. Understanding M87 gives us clues about these other objects."

As for developments within this research and the further imaging of black holes, Moscibrodzka is tight-lipped. She concluded: "Stay tuned for more results from EHT. This is all we can say for now."

Space: Landing The Perseverance Rover on Mars

Perseverance on Mars
An illustration of the Perseverance Rover on Mars. Since its landing the rover has made a number of scientific breakthroughs including drilling a rock core sample from a boulder. NASA

In terms of a science experiment making an immediate impact on its field in 2021, it's hard to beat the NASA Perseverance Rover, which touched down on the surface of Mars in February.

Roaming the Jezero Crater, an ancient dried-out lake bed on the Red Planet, the rover has discovered signs that an abundance of water once flowed across the surface of the planet. Not only this, but Perseverance has sent back some stunning images of the surface of Mars and launched the Ingenuity helicopter, the first human-designed craft to fly over the surface of an alien world.

Perhaps most significantly, in July the rover made history when it drilled and collected a rock core from a Martian boulder. This marked the first time that humanity had ever collected such a sample from another world.

The sample, which is safely stored in the rover awaiting a collect-and-return mission, could teach us more about the geology of Mars than we have ever learned before. In the meantime, during 2022, the Perseverance Rover will continue to roam the surface of Mars looking for the tell-tale signs that life once existed on Earth's neighbor.

Chemistry: Breaking Down The Plastic Pollution Problem

Plastic washes up
An image showing plastic waste washing up on a beach. The last twelve months have seen chemists continue to attack the plastic pollution problem with solutions including plastics containing enzymes that eat them from the inside out. Mario De Moya F/Getty

Plastics are one of the most important materials ever created by humankind, but these substances also present a major pollution problem.

In January of this year, Newsweek reported the findings of a new report from the National Academy of Sciences that suggested by 2030, 58.4 million tons of plastic will be added to the oceans across the world each year.

In 2021, several teams of researchers set about tackling the plastic pollution problem, and one common theme was creating plastics that break down more quickly, or that can be recycled from more basic forms.

A team of researchers led by Cornell University chemist Geoffrey W. Coates spent 2021 researching forms of the long molecular chains that make up plastics (polymers) that can break down to smaller units (monomers) and then be re-used. Much of this hinged on removing the contaminants that pollute plastics themselves.

"The polymer we've made can easily be turned back into monomers. And then you can purify it by removing other plastics, pigments, and labels. All because only the polymer turns back into a monomer," Coates told Newsweek.

"And then you can make polymer again and every time you make it, you know it's kind of like an aluminum can. You might recycle the aluminum every time you make an aluminum can, but each can as good as the one you made the time before."

Also tackling the issue of breaking down plastics was Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering at Berkeley, Ting Xu, and his team. They added an extra ingredient to plastic so it would degrade from the inside, breaking it down more rapidly.

"Biodegradable plastics rely on enzymes in nature to do the job. We put the enzyme nanoclusters inside of plastics during manufacturing so the enzymes are carried inside," Xu told Newsweek. "We also played tricks to regulate when the enzymes will do the work so the bioplastics products can be produced, stored, and used as intended."

Xu added that the work showed there is a way to produce compostable plastics compatible with current recycling infrastructure, and he hopes it will encourage people not to lose hope when it comes to tackling plastics.

As for his aims in 2022 the head of the Xu research group, said: "We are doing small scale tests to identify design rules of enzyme-containing biodegradable plastics. These basic studies are key steps to bridge basic science with industry."

Linking with industry was an area in which Coates had major success during 2021. He said: "We've had discussions with a major online retailer, to look at the feasibility of using chemically recyclable envelopes.

"You could collect these in your garage and once you get a certain amount, you could ship them back to be turned back into monomer, and make brand new envelopes that are literally as good as ever every time they make it.

"We can't do that with the polymers that we currently have."

Biology and Medicine: Human-Monkey Hybrid Embryo Sparks Ethical Questions

Monkey–human chimaera cell
An illustration of a monkey-human chimera cell. Researchers sparked controversy in April when they successfully grew monkey embryos containing human cells for the first time. Weizhi Ji/Kunming University of Science and Technology

In April, the successful growth of monkey embryos containing human cells for the first time raised ethical questions.

A study published in Cell detailed how researchers injected monkey embryos with human stem cells to observe as they develop. At least three embryos survived to 19 days after fertilization.

Associate Professor of Practical Philosophy, University of Oslo, Dr. Anna Smajdor, who was not involved in the research, said in a statement to the press: "This breakthrough reinforces an increasingly inescapable fact: biological categories are not fixed: they are fluid. This poses significant ethical and legal challenges.

"The scientists behind this research state that these chimeric embryos offer new opportunities, because 'we are unable to conduct certain types of experiments in humans'. But whether these embryos are human or not is open to question."

Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Professor Julian Savulescu, said in a press statement: "These embryos were destroyed at 20 days of development but it is only a matter of time before human-nonhuman chimeras are successfully developed, perhaps as a source of organs for humans.

"This research opens Pandora's box to human-nonhuman chimeras. The key ethical question is: what is the moral status of these novel creatures?"

Weird Science: Injecting "Magic" Mushrooms Means a Trip To The Hospital

Psilocybin mushrooms
A crop of hallucinogenic mushrooms psilocybe cubensis cultivation. In January it was revealed that so-called "magic mushrooms" had began to grow in the blood of a man who injected himself with them. Yarygin/Getty

The course of science often isn't a straight line and this means that developments can often come from some pretty extraordinary places.

A striking example of this was delivered in early 2021.

As Newsweek previously reported in January it was revealed that a 30-year-old man had spent 22 days in hospital after injecting a tea made from Psilocybe cubensis, a species of psychedelic or "magic" mushroom.

Tests revealed that the mushrooms had actually started to grow in the man's blood. The findings were published in the Journal of the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry.

This was adversely affecting the man, causing lethargy, jaundice, diarrhea, nausea, and acute liver damage, and was making him "grossly confused," according to the paper's authors.

Though the man, who had a history of intravenous drug use, could have lost his life due to injecting the tea, the authors of the paper conclude that the case could assist in the investigation of the species of fungi as a treatment for a variety of psychiatric conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse disorder, anxiety, and depression.

They also said that the case demonstrated the need for better education concerning the dangers of drug use, including this and other psychoactive fungus.

Looking Forward and Back in 2022

It's hard to predict just what scientific breakthroughs will be headed our way in 2022. But, while the sources of next year's standout biology, chemistry, or weird research will come from is anyone's guess.

Yet, the clever money is on the JWST delivering some important space or physics-related results. Possibly even revealing the first tell-tale signs of life on another world, or helping to reveal the mysteries of dark energy.

Science Breakthroughs of 2021
The past twelve months have been an important one for science, with researchers landing new missions on Mars, imaging black holes, and coming up with innovative solutions to the plastic pollution problem. NanoStockk/NASA/ JPL Caltech/EHT collaboration/ Mario De Moya/Getty