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Year in Review: Virus variants, Martian insights

Coronavirus mutations, space discoveries, and bioethical controversies highlighted a year of science news

A nurse prepares a Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April 2021. Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer, file

Year in Review: Virus variants, Martian insights

As we come to the end of 2021, here’s an overview of some of the biggest scientific and technological developments of the year.

Pandemic preoccupations

Variants and mutations are the coronavirus story of 2021. Our very first story in Beginnings this year spotlighted the emergence of the U.K. mutation in January. Then the India variant hit, devastating hospitals in the southeast Asian nation in May. Eventually, medical authorities decided to identify variants according to Greek letters rather than the country where the mutation was first recognized. As the delta variant arose later in the summer, it drove a spike in cases in the United States. It has since been overtaken by the omicron variant, which swept through multiple countries over the holidays. It’s still too early to say, but preliminary data suggests the variant causes milder illness, though it may be more contagious and more resistant to existing vaccines.

The widespread distribution of the first two vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States, from Pfizer and Moderna, highlighted the promises of mRNA technology. The Food and Drug administration gave emergency approval to the third—and least effective—COVID-19 vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, in late February. The J&J vaccine made headlines for causing mysterious blood clots. In addition to broad concerns about the vaccines’ side effects, widespread vaccine hesitancy—and resistance to vaccine mandates—was fueled in part by controversy over the use of fetal tissue during development.

Out of this world

2021 was a big year for NASA. Many people watched a livestream as the Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February, along with the groundbreaking helicopter Ingenuity. Since then, the mission has gathered samples, looked for signs of ancient life on the planet, and worked to pave the way for future manned missions. The mission successfully picked up interesting rock core samples as well. Meanwhile, the InSight lander, which measures seismic activity on Mars, discovered the red planet’s core is larger and less dense than previously thought. Elsewhere, a NASA mission also made its closest pass ever to the Sun.

But not all space developments came from NASA. Crowdsourced research led to a published discovery of a rare pulsar star. Elon Musk’s SpaceX continued building and testing rockets, and both it and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched manned missions.

Climate and conservation highs and lows

Pandemic notwithstanding, efforts at conservation continued this year. The Biden administration in May toughened rules protecting rare migratory birds. But times were tough for manatees in Florida and the North Atlantic right whale.

But there was good news, too: The California condor appeared on the brink of a recovery. A bird that experts thought was extinct was reported alive, as was a rare giant tortoise.

Another species made a ruckus this year. The Brood X cicada generation only emerges every 17 years, and billions of them came out in force in 17 U.S. states during the spring and early summer.

On the climate front, California and other Western states continued to suffer through a long-term drought. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s newest report, released in August, offered yet another forecast of doom and gloom.

Origins and ethics

On the origins front, a 2021 study offered a new view of an old fossil: A team of researchers determined a supposed missing link between humans and chimpanzees was a dud.

On the bioethics front, a pioneering animal-human transplant raised hopes for shortening organ donation waiting lists but also raised questions about the distinction between animals and humans. Still, some scientists continued to push the limits, creating a human-monkey chimera embryo.

Yet there was also good news for bioethical progress. With the pandemic drawing attention to the use of abortion-linked fetal cells in vaccine development, some researchers are hopeful that the rise of mRNA vaccines and other new technologies could make abortion-tainted cell lines obsolete.

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is a former assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.


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