2019 Breakthrough of the Year

Every year, reporters and editors at Science choose several runners-up, and one Breakthrough of the Year. Before we get to the Breakthrough, here are the runners-up. In Mexico, researchers have drilled rock cores from the Chicxulub crater. The cores chronicle in minute-by-minute detail the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Other studies have revealed how the impact immediately destroyed living things thousands of kilometers away, and how mammals and plants recovered in the thousands of years that followed. A team of physicists claimed its rudimentary quantum computer performed a calculation in 200 seconds, that would overwhelm a conventional supercomputer. The achievement is known as quantum supremacy, and it marks a significant milestone on the long road to a fully functioning quantum computer. Artificial intelligence systems have conquered a variety of complex two-person games. But this year, a system called Pluribus upped the ante. It beat professional players in thousands of six-hand games of no-limit Texas Hold ’em poker, a vastly more complex challenge. Denisovans, the extinct cousins of Neanderthals, have been known only by scraps of fossils from a Russian cave in Siberia. But their genetic traces are found in modern humans, especially in Melanesia and Australia. This year, scientists used a new protein method to identify a jaw bone found on the Tibetan Plateau as Denisovan. It's the first physical trace of a Denisovan found outside Siberia. And another research group used genetic data to reconstruct the face of a Denisovan girl. The search for effective treatments for Ebola has seen a string of disappointments. But this year, two drugs tested during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dramatically increased a patient's chance of survival. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft celebrated the new year by relaying images of an icy object from the far reaches of the Solar System, 1.6 billion kilometers beyond Pluto. It looks like two merged lumpy pancakes. Researchers believe it hasn't been disturbed since the formation of the Solar System, and it holds clues to how planets form. A series of studies has indicated that some severely malnourished children recuperate slowly, if at all, because their gut microbes remain in an immature state. This year, researchers came up with nutritional supplements the gut flora in these children recover, paving the way for more effective treatments. A drug combination approved this year in the United States, aims to turn Cystic fibrosis from a progressively damaging lung disease, into a manageable chronic illness for most patients. The treatment, which counteracts the effects of a genetic mutation carried by 90% of Cystic fibrosis patients, comes 30 years after researchers identified the gene behind the disease. This year, microbiologists took a major step toward understanding the origin of eukaryotes, the group that includes plants, animals, and other organisms with cell nuclei. After 12 years of trying, they succeeded in culturing a microbe that belongs to an elusive group called Asgard archaea. They are the closest relatives to eukaryotes, according to recent DNA analyses. Now, researchers have this missing link in hand to study. And now, the Breakthrough of the Year. In a technical tour de force, astronomers combined observations from dozens of radio telescope dishes at eight observatories around the globe, to generate the first image of a black hole. The image shows a ring of light surrounding a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy 53 million light-years from Earth. Science is recognizing this impressive international collaboration, and its impact on our understanding of the cosmos, as the 2019 Breakthrough of the Year.