The 10 biggest science stories of 2022 – chosen by scientists

1. The Dart and Orion missions

The year opened with a bang. Or rather, it didn’t. The successful film Don’t Look Up, in which a comet is found to be on a collision course with Earth, had been released just before Christmas 2021. In the bleak days of post-festive gloom, the news media were on an adrenaline high, chasing any and every story about potential asteroid collisions to cheer us all up. Five asteroids were to pass close to the Earth in January alone! Happily for the health and wellbeing of humanity, none was predicted to come within a whisker of hitting the planet. Nonetheless, the possibility of an asteroid colliding with Earth is a reality – the globe is covered in craters from previous impacts, and it is well known that 65m years ago, dinosaurs became extinct following the impact of an asteroid about 10km across. Can anything be done about saving us from this existential extraterrestrial threat? Fortunately, the international space community has taken the first steps towards reducing the risk of an asteroid catching us unawares. The joint Nasa- Esa mission Dart (Double Asteroid Re-Direction Test) was an ambitious attempt to alter the trajectory of a small asteroid (Dimorphos) as it orbited a slightly larger asteroid (Didymos), by sending a spacecraft to crash into it. In October, we learned that the mission had been even more successful than anticipated, and that the orbit of Dimorphos had changed – showing that we could, if given sufficient time, alter the path of an asteroid if it were on a collision course with Earth.

As well as asteroid activity, our moon has been in the news, as a destination of choice for a new generation of astronauts. This year, it is 50 years since the Apollo 17 mission, the last time a human set foot on the moon. So it is a cause for celebration that Artemis, another joint Nasa-Esa programme, has started its operation to return people to the moon. The first phase of the mission, the Orion capsule, was launched in mid-November, and successfully returned to Earth last week. The capsule is designed to hold up to six astronauts – though there were none on board this maiden flight around the moon. We can now look forward to a series of increasingly complex flights of Orion – culminating in a crew of astronauts landing on the moon as soon as 2025.

Monica Grady

Monica Grady is professor of planetary and space sciences at Open University

2. Covid’s boost to immune research

Vaccine technology has seen an unprecedented acceleration in innovation that could soon be benefiting us in a host of ways. A vaccine works by delivering an “infection” signal (something from the germ) and an “alert” signal (to wake the immune response up). As our knowledge of immunology has increased, so too has our capacity to innovate in the vaccines that deliver those signals. Designing any new vaccine takes a long time, significant investment and a lot of eager volunteers, all of which was accelerated during the pandemic, resulting in a host of novel developments.

The autumn Covid-19 booster shots we have just been offered are one such example – these bivalent vaccines target the original strain of Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) alongside the Omicron variant. Bivalent vaccines have advantages over the original vaccines as they both top up and broaden our immunity. But what if you could broaden your immunity further – to not just two but multiple strains of virus? So-called multivalent vaccines for Covid-19 and flu are looking very promising. Another approach we could soon see is the use of sniffable or inhalable vaccines – mucosal vaccines. These are already used in China to tackle Covid-19 and may offer long-term protection against respiratory viruses. They are also much more appealing for those of us who are needle-phobic. If these new developments deliver on their promise, then one day soon the calls for annual shots could be a thing of the past. Sheena Cruickshank

Sheena Cruickshank is professor of biomedical sciences and public engagement at the University of Manchester

3. AI reveals new antibiotics

Over the course of the past few years, AI has transformed the field of molecular biology. The revolution started with the AlphaFold algorithm, which rapidly predicts the complex three-dimensional structures of proteins, thus aiding the understanding of protein functions and the identification of drug targets. This year, AI has achieved another breakthrough, this time at the other end of the drug discovery pipeline: several groups in 2022 have reported the first successful applications of AI to identify novel antibiotic drugs.

Antimicrobial resistance is a major global threat. This year, the global research on antimicrobial resistance report published in the Lancet indicated that, worldwide, 4.95m deaths were associated with drug-resistant bacteria in 2019, making untreatable infections one of the leading causes of death.

Developing new drugs that overcome resistance and replenish our arsenal of effective antimicrobials is a continuous struggle. And that is where AI is now beginning to make a major contribution. For example, Yue Ma and colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences used machine-learning techniques originally developed for natural language processing to identify antimicrobial peptides encoded by the genome sequences of microbes in the human gut. The algorithm identified 2,349 potential antimicrobial peptide sequences. Of these, 216 peptides were synthesised by chemical methods, and 181 of them were shown to have antimicrobial activity. This is an impressive success rate, which would not have been possible without the aid of AI.

Even more strikingly, almost half of the peptides discovered were entirely new, without obvious sequence similarity to known antimicrobials, thus increasing the chances of circumventing existing resistance mechanisms. Animal experiments showed that three of the new peptides could be used for the safe and effective treatment of bacterial pneumonia in mice. Studies such as this are good news, promising an unprecedented rapid route towards novel treatment options for some of the scariest pathogenic threats we currently face. Eriko Takano

Eriko Takano is professor of synthetic biology at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology

4. Early weather warnings

displaced people carry belongings along a flooded road in jaffarabad, south-eastern pakistan, in august this year
Displaced people carry belongings along a flooded road in Jaffarabad, south-eastern Pakistan, in August this year. Photograph: Zahid Hussain/AP

In 2022, science was able to see a hurricane hitting the coast of the US before it even formed out at sea. We could visualise the Brisbane River spreading out into Australian homes before a drop of rain had fallen. And we put firefighters on action stations before the spark was lit that burned southern France. We now have the technology to see many of these natural hazards coming, days in advance.

And yet 2022 has been full of lethal events. In Europe, more than 20,000 people died from record-breaking heat this summer, hitting more than 40C (104F) across England for the first time. In August, one third of Pakistan was underwater during a monster monsoon season, killing 1,700 people. Global heating is making these types of disasters worse.

This is why the key scientific story from the past year is not cutting-edge research or hi-tech engineering, but the push by the UN secretary general António Guterres for the world to have equal access to early warnings. Alerting people to danger, so they can take action, is the best way to prevent tragedy. We need equal access to skills and systems that were pioneered years ago. Critical, too, is the leadership to share information and act on the warnings that ensue. Hannah Cloke

Hannah Cloke is professor of hydrology at Reading University

5. Inclusive inroads

a scanning electron microscope image of red blood cells affected by sickle cell disease
A scanning electron microscope image of red blood cells affected by sickle cell disease. A new treatment for the condition may soon be available. Photograph: Science History Images/Alamy

This year saw a small but important advance in the treatment of sickle cell disease, a group of inherited disorders that cause red blood cells to become sickle shaped and can lead to anaemia. A drug developed to treat an enzyme deficiency (pyruvate kinase) was found to improve anaemia and reduced acute episodes of severe pain in sickle cell disease. While the research is still in its early phases, the researchers point out that their breakthrough came from looking at the characteristics of people with sickle cell disease rather than focusing only on their red blood cells. This development has been found to benefit people with other conditions and brings hope to millions of people worldwide, but predominantly in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and South America.

This was also the year when Nasa’s Artemis mission, which aims “to land the first woman and first person of colour on the moon” by 2025, put female torsos Helga and Zohar into space to test the effects of radiation on the grounds that women appear to be at a greater risk from space radiation than men. This may seem unremarkable, but it was only in 2022 that a Swedish research team designed a new crash test dummy representing an “average woman”, rather than a scaled-down version of the male dummy that is the size of a 12-year-old girl.

Developments such as these excite hope of inclusive science where gender, ethnicity and location neither privilege nor exclude. Ann Phoenix

Ann Phoenix is professor of psychosocial studies at the UCL Institute of Education

6. Elite mathematicians

The Fields medal recognises outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work. Often described as the Nobel prize of mathematics, it is awarded every four years to recipients under the age of 40.

Congratulation to Prof James Maynard, who was awarded a Fields medal this year for his “spectacular contributions” to analytic number theory, “which have led to major advances in the understanding of the structure of prime numbers and in Diophantine approximation”.

One of his standout proofs was to prove the following: there are infinitely many prime numbers whose decimal representation does not contain the digit 7.

Such a simple statement to understand but not very easy to prove. Maynard joins an elite list of British mathematicians who have won the medal.

Congratulations also to one of the other Fields medallists, the Ukrainian mathematician Maryna Viazovska, the second woman to win the award. The mathematician Henry Cohn stated: “Viazovska manages to do things that are completely non-obvious that lots of people tried and failed to do.” She was cited for many mathematical accomplishments, in particular her proof that an arrangement called the E8 lattice is the densest packing of spheres in eight dimensions. Nira Chamberlain

Prof Nira Chamberlain is president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications

7. Soft cell, hard cell…

When we think about what influences how the cells inside our bodies develop, we often think of biological or chemical factors. But physical forces – what’s known as the “mechanical” environment – can be just as critical to a cell’s journey. The ability of cells to sense and respond to their mechanical environment has been known for several decades: for example, stem cells grown on soft jelly-like gels will become different cell types compared with stem cells grown on stiff glass-like surfaces.

Brillouin microscopy is non-damaging, allowing you to ‘see’ the stiffness of cells without touching them

Early signs of diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s are often associated with changes in cell stiffness. However, it has been difficult to measure the stiffness of cells and organs inside our bodies, and how they change during development and disease. Tools to measure cell mechanical properties have relied on applying forces to the cell – essentially poking or cutting a cell and seeing how it responds. This is often invasive and damaging, and isn’t easily performed on living cells or organs inside animals, let alone humans.

This year, two research groups, one from Germany, and one from the US, published separate studies demonstrating groundbreaking improvements in a method to measure cell-stiffness, known as Brillouin microscopy. This optical method is non-damaging, allowing you to “see” the stiffness of a material without having to touch it. Developments in this technique this year have significantly advanced imaging speed and resolution, and reduced photo-damage, making the method now widely applicable for observing changes in cell mechanical properties in living animals.

This method will provide a powerful tool for early diagnosis of diseases such as cancer, atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s. It will also revolutionise how scientists can measure and track the mechanical changes of our cells during normal development, and critically improve our understanding of the importance of mechanical forces in biology. Yanlan Mao

Yanlan Mao is professor of developmental biophysics at University College London

8. Quantum entanglement untangled

“Spooky action at a distance.” That’s what Albert Einstein called quantum entanglement, which is when two quantum particles have to be considered as a single entity, since influencing one of them affects the other even when they are far apart.

In October this year, the three pioneers of quantum information science, Alain Aspect of the University of Paris-Saclay, John Clauser of JF Clauser & Associates, and Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna were awarded the Nobel prize in physics for their contributions to understanding quantum entanglement.

There are many reasons to enjoy this long overdue award. For the sheer beauty of providing new insights into an exciting area of fundamental phenomena. For laying the groundwork for breakthroughs in quantum computers to carry out complex calculations that would be impossible on a conventional computer, and in quantum encryption that could allow secure communications. For spurring more experiments to address one of the great questions of science – how to reconcile quantum mechanics with Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

And finally, for demonstrating another example of the importance of curiosity-driven basic science leading to real-world applications that could change the way we live and work. Saiful Islam

Saiful Islam is professor of materials science at Oxford University

9. Nature positive

greenpeace activists hold up banners at cop15, the un biodiversity conference, in montreal, canada, earlier this month
Greenpeace activists hold up banners at Cop15, the UN biodiversity conference, in Montreal, Canada, earlier this month. Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock

A huge moment for biodiversity is still ongoing as I write: the much-delayed 15th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal, which will set a course for nature recovery from now until 2050. These international agreements feed into national legislation, such as the UK’s Environment Act. Alongside this, companies are making bold commitments to become “nature positive”, meaning that their activities should, overall, lead to nature being in a better state.

Nature-positive commitments need to translate into real, measurable – and attributable – recovery of nature. This is very challenging, though, partly because many products have tortuous supply chains so that the companies themselves don’t always know what the biodiversity impact of their activities is. For example, nickel is a crucial component of our daily lives, being used in the production of stainless steel. Yet how often do we stop and think about where the nickel in our cutlery or electric car batteries has come from, and how producing it has affected the environment?

One impact is the clearance of forests in areas where nickel ore is mined. Ambatovy nickel mine, the biggest mine in Madagascar, is one of a growing number of businesses to have made a commitment to leave nature in no worse a state as a result of its operations. The mine compensated for its forest clearance by putting measures in place to stop clearance of forest by local people for agriculture elsewhere. This year, Katie Devenish and colleagues at Bangor University published a paper looking at whether they had succeeded. Using sophisticated methods to separate out the effects of the mine’s activities from other factors leading to forest loss, the researchers demonstrated that the mine was on track to prevent at least as much deforestation as it had caused. The study is a model for how scientists can carry out thorough and independent evaluations of companies’ environmental commitments, reducing the temptation to greenwash.

We need many more studies like this, that link the esoteric world of high-level policy-making to realities on the ground, in all sectors from mining, to food, to transport and infrastructure. Then we will have a much better chance to hold our governments and companies to account, and reverse the loss of nature, wherever it takes place. EJ Milner-Gulland

EJ Milner-Gulland is a professor of biodiversity at Oxford University

10. Battery charge

lithium extraction at bristol lake in the mojave desert, california
Lithium extraction at Bristol Lake in the Mojave Desert, California. This year researchers have made progress in building sodium-based batteries, which could reduce the need for destructive mining methods. Photograph: David McNew/Getty

It’s one of the greatest unappreciated stories of our time: the incredibly rapid improvements in battery technology that will form the foundation of an electrified world as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

Of course there are questions. What about the costs? Will batteries ever really store enough energy for their size to power something like a large plane? And where will we get all the rare metals necessary to build them?

That’s why my story of the year is the October Nature paper by Chao-Yang Wang and co-authors, describing a way to charge energy-dense batteries incredibly quickly – in just a few minutes. It really highlights the phenomenal speed at which battery chemists, engineers and technologists are rising to the challenge. If you can charge a car battery in 10-12 minutes, charging more frequently becomes much less of a problem, allowing for smaller batteries that are cheaper and less resource-intensive to make.

We are also seeing huge progress in battery technologies based on cheap, abundant sodium instead of expensive and relatively rare lithium, as well as methods to make all these batteries far easier to recycle.

The basic principles of a battery haven’t changed, but the potential of the newest versions is astonishing and getting better all the time. Helen Czerski

Helen Czerski is a research fellow at the department of mechanical engineering, University College London