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14 January 2020

The Science to Come in 2020

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Regardless of the eternal debate about whether the new decade began on January 1st or will begin on the first day of 2021, the undeniable fact is that we have already entered the 1920s of this century, a period that arrives with the promise of great scientific progress, both on our own planet and on the deserted worlds that we have conquered around us. We review here what are likely to be some of the greatest advances over the next twelve months.

The invasion of Mars

NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Artist’s Concept. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Among the safest bets for 2020 is a project that bears the year in its name: on July 17, NASA is scheduled to launch Mars 2020, a mission that will place a new rover on the Martian surface, where its predecessor, Curiosity, still operates. Although the new rover —not yet officially named— is not equipped to detect life, for the first time since the Viking mission in 1976 astrobiology will be a priority target. Mars 2020 will analyse the habitability of Mars in the past and probe for possible signs of ancient life. In addition, a camera-equipped drone will provide an unprecedented view of both the Martian landscapes and the vehicle itself.

Although NASA is so far the only entity that has managed to successfully land on the Martian surface, their monopoly could start to be broken this year: on July 25th, the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch the second phase of ExoMars, a mission that will take the Kazachok lander and the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars. Between July and August, China will undertake its own attempt to tread on the red planet with its Huoxing-1 mission. To see if all these long marches to Mars reach their goal, we will have to wait until 2021.

A new attempt to trap dark matter

The XENONnT should go into operation in 2020 in order to hunt for particle of dark matter. Credit: Purdue University

Mars will not be the only focus of space science in 2020. In particular, a golden age is also beginning to emerge for missions to return samples to Earth: the Chinese Chang’e-5 mission will do so on the Moon, while NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and Japan’s Hayabusa-2 will try to do the same with two asteroids. For their part, private space operators will continue to construct their path to other worlds. Meanwhile, here on Earth, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration will attempt to add to its 2019 feat of photographing the first black hole by capturing images of the second, Sagittarius A*, in the centre of the Milky Way.

This year too, we will be hoping to encounter new, albeit tiny, visitors from the stars. The XENONnT experiment in Italy and the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment in South Dakota (USA) should go into operation in 2020 in order to hunt for hypothetical particle of dark matter, that elusive ingredient of the universe that provides a gravity boost to galaxies. If these detectors —the most powerful ever built— fail to capture so-called Weakly Interacting Mass Particles (WIMPs), we will still have no tangible confirmation of the actual existence of dark matter.

CRISPR, opportunities and threats

He Jiankui announced in November 2018 the birth of two girls with edited genomes. Credit: The He Lab

In the field of biomedicine, the genetic editing tool CRISPR and its variants will continue for another year to focus the hopes of the new strategies on the treatment of diseases. The first uses on patients began a few years ago in China, but in 2019 we learned about the first clinical trials in the U.S. aimed at treating cancer, blood diseases such as sickle cell anaemia or beta thalassemia, and a hereditary form of blindness. Although the results are still very preliminary, those already published on the safety and efficacy of the treatments have so far justified the continuation of these investigations. Without doubt, in 2020 we will have the results from a large volume of studies that will help to confirm whether we are on the cusp of the long-awaited therapeutic revolution.

The possible applications of CRISPR are not limited to its direct use on patients —in the case of blindness— or to the genetic modification of their own cells in culture —as is attempted against cancer and blood diseases. These molecular DNA scissors also have the potential to open a broad new avenue in the field of transplantation, traditionally limited by the availability of donors. A growing line of research is focused on xenotransplantation, the use of tissues and organs from animals such as pigs. The use of CRISPR allows the correction of genes in these biological materials in order to reduce the likelihood of rejection in recipients, and at some point this year we might already see the first clinical trials of this strategy. In parallel and also in the field of transplants, in 2020 there will be new advances in the creation of organoids, biological spare parts created in the laboratory from stem cells.

However, CRISPR will also remain in the spotlight because of its not so praiseworthy applications. Last year ended with the conviction of He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who in November 2018 announced the birth of two girls with edited genomes, and his sentencing to three years in prison and a fine of 384,000 euros. At the same time, the existence of a third baby was also confirmed. Perhaps new details will be revealed in 2020 about these widely disapproved of genetic interventions, but the debate on the ethical limits of this research will undoubtedly continue.

Another year of the climate crisis

Change climate protests in Madrid, December 2019. Credit: Malopez 21

In twelve months’ time, we may no longer be surprised to hear that 2020 has once again beaten historical temperature records, but the consequences of the climate emergency will continue to shake us, like the devastating fires of the Australian summer. Following the failure of Chile’s COP25 in Madrid, in November 2020 the parties will meet again in Glasgow for COP26. This is a critical meeting to revitalize the Paris Agreement of 2015, and nations are expected to make even more ambitious commitments, despite the fact that the vast majority have not fulfilled their earlier commitments. Meanwhile, the clock of the most pressing global crisis of our time will continue to tick.

Javier Yanes


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