In recent years there have been astonishing advances in the scientific and technological world: the confirmation of the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, the completion of the Human Genome project, the detection of water on Mars, the discovery of graphite and the spectacular advance of nanotechnology, the development of CRISPR/Cas9 technology and a long list of innovations that until recently were considered science fiction.
As 2020 approaches, experts from different fields predict what new scientific developments we can expect in the coming years. These developments range from space travel to research on climate change and the treatment of diseases.
The Muy Interesante team has spoken to experts from different fields to find out what 2020 holds in store for you.
Biomedicine and the fight against cancer
The team spoke to María Abad, director of a research group at the Oncology Institute of Vall d'HebrónPhD about the future of biomedicine.
Abad predicted that a lot of progress will be made in the field of immunotherapy.
“In this last decade, it [immunology] has already been a real revolution and thanks to it, a lot of people have already been cured!”
"However, there is still a lot to learn: immunotherapy does not work when dealing with all tumours or all types of cancer, and I believe that in the 2020s we will continue to make progress in this direction.
The researcher is also clear that "a lot of progress will be made in early detection, either through improvements in imaging techniques, which will be much more sensitive and accessible, or through liquid biopsy techniques, which can detect the presence of tumours in a sample of blood or other fluids," she explains.
The key to understanding the development of many diseases and finding new ways to combat them lies in basic science. The researcher explains that until now, in cancer research everything was based on locating mutations and attacking them but if you take a look at it from basic science’s point of view; it is increasingly evident that not everything depends on mutations.
Tumour cells acquire cellular plasticity and transformation capacity, and therefore adaptation, and this does not strictly depend on mutations. These are paradigms that cannot be applied yet in clinical medicine because they haven’t been studied on a basic level.
The key is microbiology?
Microbes are agents that cause many diseases, but they can also be part of the solution, as Raúl Rivas, professor and researcher at the Microbial Interactions Group of the Department of Microbiology and Genetics at the University of Salamanca, explains.
Rivas believes that extraordinary advances will also be made in his field of research but not without their challenges. He starts by explaining how new viral epidemics are appearing more and more, something that hasn’t happened for a long time, but is increasing as viruses recombine and new mutated strains appear.
“In addition, there is the challenge of multi-resistance to antibiotics, which is a problem but, in turn, those who have the solution are also the same microorganisms.”
The scientist also believes that with CRISPR technology we have a fundamental tool for the development of new applications, obtaining transgenics and the treatment of numerous diseases.
"I think we are going to eradicate diseases, and polio will be the next... we have to do it! It would be the second human disease to be eradicated, since so far it has only been achieved with smallpox (human) and rinderpest (animal),” he added.
Genetic engineering and CRISPR technology
In relation to the CRISPR technology and its possibilities in human genetic engineering Muy Interesante has spoken with Susanna Balcells, researcher in the Department of Genetics, Microbiology and Statistics at the University of Barcelona and at CIBERER.
"One of the imminent challenges is to control the modification to the point where it can be totally specific. CRISPR/Cas9 technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, and increasingly effective variants are emerging. But we still do not fully control this specificity, and in order to modify the genome of a human being we must guarantee it 100%", explains this expert.
She goes on to explain that the therapeutic application of CRISPR is expensive and technically
“As in many other areas of medicine, there are enormous inequalities in this field. The leading groups have already set up their companies and have patented their protocols, and in fact there are quite a few patent wars between them.
In this sense, Balcells also considers it important to ensure that the technique is within everyone's reach and that the ethical and legal framework for the application of genetic modification is constructed. While the debate is still open, the researcher believes that other scientists will soon appear advancing 'on their own', as was the case of He Jiankui and his team, who a year ago announced the birth of the first genetically modified human babies.
Raúl Rivas points out that, in the field of biotechnology, one of the most important advances in recent decades has been the possibility of cultivating skin. A milestone that allows to test cosmetics without the need to use animal models.
According to the expert, Biotechnology will also bring many solutions to current problems through biomimetics, which seeks its inspiration in nature. "There are already some examples such as the Japanese bullet train, whose nose is based on the kingfisher's beak. Or solar plants designed in the shape of the sunflower flower, which imitate the arrangement of the seeds to be able to put more solar panels in less space. This is going to go much further, it is going to be a real revolution in the design and construction of buildings.
Biotechnology will also affect the field of information. "DNA is going to be used as a vehicle for transporting and storing data," explains Rivas. "I believe that in a short time there will be hard disks of DNA, in fact it has already been possible to encode in a sequence of DNA a film of cinema.
Finally, the scientist highlights the usefulness of the study of microbiological fingerprints in forensic crimes. "We all have a fingerprint, but also a microbiological one, each person has certain microorganisms that are already beginning to be studied to see if it is possible to create a kind of database that allows us to assign the microbiological fingerprint that is left at the scene of the crime," he concludes.
Climate change and desertification
Climate change is another major scientific topic to look forward to in 2020. We have asked Fernando Maestre, Distinguished Researcher at the Ramon Margalef Multidisciplinary Institute for the Study of the Environment of the University of Alicante, about climate change.
Maestre talks about the main challenges humanity faces today, is to better understand how climate change will affect ‘hidden biodiversity’ and by this we mean the biodiversity that soils harbour.
On the other hand, the researcher also talks about the need to improve the current models that explain the dynamics of carbon explicitly taking into account the activity of soil microorganisms.
"The models have to incorporate feedback between processes such as soil CO2 emissions and global warming. This will serve not only to improve the models, but also to "have more precise information on how different management actions -such as planting trees or agricultural management- will affect the sequestration and balance of carbon on our planet," Maestre explains.
In a climate change scenario, many Mediterranean countries are at greater risk of desertification.
"I believe that in the coming years there will be very important advances in our understanding of under what climatic conditions and human pressure an arid ecosystem will be desertified," predicts Maestre.
"For example, if we know what levels of aridity and grazing are going to trigger the desertification of an ecosystem, we will be able to establish early warning indicators that tell us that this process is happening and, therefore, we will be able to act to reverse its effects before it is too late.
Regarding climate change, Raúl Rivas also believes that microbiology and biotechnology can be part of the solution: "there are many microorganisms, especially those related to the marine biome, that can fix CO2 and become powerful allies. Steps are also being taken to obtain cellulose from microorganisms and avoid cutting down trees.
In addition, experts have already announced that diets based on the consumption of animal protein are not sustainable. In this regard, the microbiologist predicts that "soon new food will be available, I do not know if it will be in this decade, but we already have the laboratory meat. At the moment it is expensive, but the steps will go there because it is unsustainable to produce meat for all and especially in a scenario of overpopulation. There will be new foods and many may be based on microorganisms: microplankton, microalgae and a long etcetera".
We can't talk about future science without thinking about space exploration. At present, the space agencies of the great superpowers already have several dozen missions of all kinds planned for the 2020s.
In October 2021, NASA plans to launch the Lucy mission, which will study the so-called Trojan asteroids beyond the asteroid belt over the next 12 years. These bodies orbit the Sun at a distance from Jupiter, and are expected to give us more clues about the formation and evolution of our solar system.
For its part, the European Space Agency will continue with its ExoMars programme, made up of two missions. The second, ExoMars 2020, will take off in the summer of 2020 and is scheduled to land on the red planet in March 2021. The U.S. agency also plans to send another of its rovers to Mars around this time, specifically to the Jezero crater, on a mission that will last a Martian year (687 land days).
Another focus of attention is the search for potentially inhabitable exoplanets, and ESA has approved the PLATO mission, with a launch planned for 2023. In addition, NASA's Europa Clipper mission will be launched between 2023 and 2025 to determine whether Europe possesses the ingredients necessary to sustain life as we know it.
Will 2020 be the decade of space travel? The key may be in Elon Musk, which a few months ago presented its Starship Mk1, a prototype that, according to him, will be ready by 2020 to start sending passengers into space. In addition, Musk plans to send ships to Mars by the beginning of this decade and, shortly thereafter, to the first astronauts.
NASA's plan is somewhat more prudent: the U.S. agency plans to bring the first humans to Mars in the 2030s, and its intention in the coming years is to minimise the risks associated with such a mission. One of the possibilities is to carry out some kind of training on the International Space Station, simulating the conditions and vicissitudes of a trip to Mars, but being, as they say, 'at home'.
The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is not far behind: its new rocket is called Argo, it will be ready by 2024, and it will start making supply trips to the International Space Station.
And, in addition, the decade of 2020 will be the one in which man returns to the Moon: NASA has an ambitious project, called Artemis, which foresees up to eleven launches between 2020 and 2024. One of the milestones will be to send the first woman to the Moon and, in addition, from 2025 the first commercial flights are foreseen, as well as more or less long stays of humans in our satellite, as part of the preparation for the future human exploration in Mars.
So far this century, the study of the origins of our species has advanced by leaps and bounds and we have discovered new species of hominids which, although they greatly complicate the task of unraveling our evolutionary tree, make this venture even more exciting.
We now know that, for most of its evolutionary history, Homo sapiens has not been alone. It shared habitat and even hybridized with at least two other species: Neanderthals and Denisovans. In addition, other species of the genus Homo have been described that have broken old schemes and that could evolve in ways different from ours: H. floresiensis, H. naledi and, more recently, H. luzonensis. On the other hand, also at the beginning of this century was published in Science the description of Ardipithecus ramidus, the most likely candidate to be the oldest hominid we know.
It is very likely that in the coming years there will be, on the one hand, new discoveries of hominid species hitherto unknown, and also that we will deepen our knowledge and find out more details about the life forms of our ancestors. Genetic and molecular dating techniques have evolved a lot, and the analysis of ancient remains with the most modern technology will allow much more precise deductions.