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8 scientific discoveries that made their mark in 2021

December 16 2021 | Laura Martinez


Successful pig kidney transplant in a human — September 2021

In September, a kidney grown in a genetically altered pig was successfully transplanted in a human body by a team of New York surgeons. The kidney was able to filter blood and produce urine. After a procedure that lasted several hours, the pig kidney was attached to the blood vessels of the body of a brain-dead woman whose family had consented to the experiment. The kidney functioned as it should for the length of the two-and-a-half-day experiment.  

Self-driving Roboats straight out of a James Bond movie — October 2021

On October 28, along the canals of the Port of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, the world witnessed the arrival of the very first self-driving robot boats, called Roboats. With a five passenger (or 1,500 kg cargo) capacity, these self-navigating boats are entirely electric and rely on the same GPS and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technologies used by self-driving cars. They are also equipped with 360-degree cameras. The Roboat project was a collaborative effort between scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and from the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions.   

The human genome now entirely sequenced! — May 2021

After several decades of research, sequencing of the remaining 8% of the human genome is now complete. Reconstructed from strings of DNA sequences placed end to end, mapping the human genome is like a gigantic puzzle made up of 3.2 billion pieces (or pairs of nucleotides). The trickiest parts were the extremely repetitive ones (much like puzzle pieces that all look the same).

Lightning cleansing the atmosphere — May 2021

A team of American scientists found that lightning could help cleanse the atmosphere of pollutants. It appears that bolts of lightning that do not make it down to Earth break down water vapours from clouds to form enormous volumes of two different oxidating radicals, hydroxyl (OH) and hydroperoxyl (HO2). These two hydrogen oxides appear to break down certain greenhouse gases including methane, a major contributor to global warming —twenty-five times more so than carbon dioxide (CO2) in fact!       

RNA revolutionizing medicine — March 2021

A literature review published in March shed light on how messenger RNA vaccines (also known as mRNA vaccines, like the ones made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna) could be revolutionizing medicine. A number of pioneering mRNA vaccines were being tested this year, namely in the fields of HIV, flu, and cancer research. Whereas other vaccines use inactivated (dead) or attenuated (weakened) viruses, mRNA vaccines use a slightly modified portion of a virus; its mRNA. Instead of using a modified form of a virus to trigger an immune response, mRNA vaccines inject a virus’s protein recipe. The immune response it triggers lasts over time and protects the body against the virus in question, much like other vaccines. 

Life on Mars may be underground — June 2021

If there was ever life on Mars, proof of it may lie underground. An international team revealed that, when coming in contact with water, certain Martian rocks undergo chemical reactions that could generate what’s needed to support microbial life forms. Some of these rocks were collected by the Mars rover Curiosity and were studied by a team that included Canadian geologist Barbara Sherwood Lollar from the University of Toronto. It remains to be seen if any underground water reserves still exist on the planet.

Perseverance successfully landing on Mars — February 2021 

On February 18, after journeying almost 7 months across nearly 470 million kilometres in space, NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars. Since then, it has been collecting rock and soil samples from the Red Planet to help scientists determine if life ever existed on Mars. At least two Canadians were involved in the mission: geology professor from the University of Alberta, Christopher Herd, and Farah Alibay, a NASA aerospace engineer born right here in Montréal.      

Personal carbon quotas to help modify behaviour — August 2021

In a study published in the journal Nature on August 16, researchers suggest that implementing personal carbon allowances could help us fight climate change. By giving individual citizens greenhouse gas emission limits, we could encourage them to rethink things like how they travel and what they buy. This meta analysis was led by researchers from Sweden, the UK, and Israel who believe we now have the right stuff, technologically speaking, to implement a project like this.  


Laura Martinez
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Text and images by Laura Martinez

Laura’s love of science is matched only by her love for adventure. She is a PhD in biology who spent more than ten years studying seabeds. She’s also the expert on whale sunburns! Since 2017, she has been devoted to Arctic research, science journalism, and projects aimed at popularizing science. Keep an eye out for her next blog posts!