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From find­ing the build­ing blocks for life on Mars to break­throughs in gene edit­ing and the rise of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, here are the ma­jor sci­en­tific discoverie­s that shaped the 2010s - and what lead­ing ex­perts say could come next.

Are we alone?

We don’t yet know whether there was ever life on Mars - but thanks to a small, six-wheeled ro­bot, we do know the Red Planet was hab­it­able.

Shortly af­ter land­ing on Au­gust 6, 2012, NASA's Cu­rios­ity rover dis­cov­ered rounded peb­bles - new ev­i­dence that rivers flowed there bil­lions of years ago.

The proof has since mul­ti­plied, show­ing there was in fact a lot of wa­ter on Mars - the sur­face was cov­ered in hot springs, lakes, and maybe even oceans.

Cu­rios­ity also dis­cov­ered what NASA calls the build­ing blocks of life, com­plex or­ganic mol­e­cules, in 2014.

Two new rovers will be launched next year - Amer­ica’s Mars 2020 and Europe's Ros­alind Franklin rovers, look­ing for an­cient mi­crobes.

Ein­stein was right (again)

We had long thought of the lit­tle cor­ner of the uni­verse that we call home as unique, but ob­ser­va­tions made thanks to the Ke­pler space tele­scope blew apart those pre­ten­sions.

Launched in 2009, the Ke­pler mis­sion helped iden­tify more than 2,600 plan­ets out­side of our so­lar sys­tem, also known as ex­o­plan­ets - and as­tronomers be­lieve each star has a planet, mean­ing there are bil­lions out there.

Ke­pler's suc­ces­sor TESS was launched by NASA in 2018, as we scope out the po­ten­tial for ex­trater­res­trial life.

Ex­pect more de­tailed anal­y­sis of the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of these plan­ets' at­mos­pheres in the 2020s, said Tim Swin­dle, an as­tro­physi­cist at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona.

We also got our first glimpse of a black hole this year thanks to the ground­break­ing work of the Event Hori­zon Tele­scope col­lab­o­ra­tion.

“By the end of the next decade, we will be mak­ing high qual­ity real-time movies of black holes,” Shep Doele­man, the project's di­rec­tor, told AFP.

But one event from the decade un­doubt­edly stood above the rest: The de­tec­tion for the first time on Septem­ber 14, 2015 of grav­i­ta­tional waves, rip­ples in the fab­ric of the uni­verse.

The col­li­sion of two black holes 1.3bn years ear­lier was so pow­er­ful it spread waves through­out the cos­mos that bend space and travel at the speed of light. That morn­ing, they fi­nally reached the Earth.

The phe­nom­e­non had been pre­dicted by Al­bert Ein­stein in his the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity, and here was proof he was right all along.

Wel­come to the CRISPR

Clus­tered Reg­u­larly In­ter­spaced Short Palin­dromic Re­peats (CRISPR) - a fam­ily of DNA se­quences - is a phrase that doesn't ex­actly roll off the tongue.

But the field of bio­med­i­cine can now be di­vided into two eras, one de­fined dur­ing the past decade: Be­fore and af­ter

CRISPR-Cas9 (or CRISPR for short), the ba­sis for a gene edit­ing tech­nol­ogy.

“CRISPR-based gene edit­ing stands above all the oth­ers,” Wil­liam Kaelin, a 2019 No­bel prize win­ner for medicine, told AFP.

In 2012, Em­manuelle Char­p­en­tier and Jen­nifer Doudna re­ported that they had de­vel­oped the new tool that ex­ploits the im­mune de­fence sys­tem of bac­te­ria to edit the genes of other or­gan­isms.

Em­manuelle and Jen­nifer were show­ered in awards. but the tech­nique is also far from per­fect and can cre­ate un­in­tended mutations.

Im­munother­apy to the fore

For decades, doc­tors had three main weapons to fight cancer: Surgery, chemo­ther­apy drugs and ra­di­a­tion.

The 2010s saw the rise of a fourth, one that was long doubted: Im­munother­apy, or lever­ag­ing the body's own im­mune sys­tem to tar­get tu­mour cells. One of the most ad­vanced tech­niques is known as CAR T-cell ther­apy, in which a pa­tient's T-cells - part of their im­mune sys­tem - are col­lected from their blood, mod­i­fied and re­in­fused into the body.

A wave of drugs have hit the mar­ket since the mid-2010s for more and more types of cancer in­clud­ing melanomas, lym­phomas, leukemias and lung can­cers - herald­ing what some on­col­o­gists hope could be a golden era.

Meet the rel­a­tives

The decade be­gan with a ma­jor new ad­di­tion to the hu­man fam­ily tree: Deniso­vans, named af­ter the Denisova Cave in the Al­tai Moun­tains of Siberia.

Sci­en­tists se­quenced the DNA of a fe­male ju­ve­nile’s fin­ger bone in 2010, find­ing it was dis­tinct both from ge­net­i­cally mod­ern hu­mans and Ne­an­derthals, our most fa­mous an­cient cousins who lived along­side us un­til around 40,000 years ago. The mys­te­ri­ous ho­minin species is thought to have ranged from Siberia to In­done­sia, but the only re­mains have been found in the Al­tai re­gion and Ti­bet.

We also learned that, un­like pre­vi­ously as­sumed, Homo sapi­ens bred ex­ten­sively with Ne­an­derthals - and our rel­a­tives were also re­spon­si­ble for art­works, such as the hand­prints in a Span­ish cave.

They also wore jew­ellery, and buried their dead with flow­ers - just like we do.

Next came Homo naledi, re­mains of which were dis­cov­ered in South Africa in 2015, while this year, pa­le­on­tol­o­gists clas­si­fied yet an­other species found in the Philip­pines: A small-sized ho­minin called Homo lu­zo­nen­sis. One ex­cit­ing new av­enue for the next decade is pa­le­o­pro­teomics, which al­lows sci­en­tists to an­a­lyse bones mil­lions of years old.

AI lev­els up

Ma­chine learn­ing - what we most com­monly mean when talk­ing about ‘ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence - came into its own in the 2010s. Us­ing statis­tics to iden­tify pat­terns in vast datasets, ma­chine learn­ing to­day pow­ers ev­ery­thing from voice as­sis­tants to rec­om­men­da­tions on Netflix and Face­book.

So-called ‘deep learn­ing’ takes this process even fur­ther and be­gins to mimic some of the com­plex­ity of a hu­man brain.

It is the tech­nol­ogy be­hind some of the most eye-catch­ing break­throughs of the decade: from Google's Al­phaGo, which beat the world cham­pion of the fiendishly dif­fi­cult game Go in 2017, to the ad­vent of real-time voice trans­la­tions and ad­vanced fa­cial recog­ni­tion on Face­book.

“Cer­tainly the big­gest break­through in the 2010s was deep learn­ing - the discovery that ar­ti­fi­cial neu­ral net­works could be scaled up to many real-world tasks,” said Henry Kautz, a com­puter sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Rochester. “In ap­plied re­search, I think AI has the po­ten­tial to power new meth­ods for sci­en­tific discovery,” from en­hanc­ing the strength of ma­te­ri­als to dis­cov­er­ing new drugs and even mak­ing break­throughs in physics, Kautz said.

This year, sci­en­tists re­leased the first-ever im­age of a black hole in the cen­tre of the galaxy M87 cap­tured by the Event Hori­zon Tele­scope

Pre­his­toric dots and crim­son hand sten­cils on Span­ish cave walls are now the world’s old­est known cave art, ac­cord­ing to new dat­ing re­sults—per­haps the best ev­i­dence yet that Ne­an­derthals were Earth’s first cave painters.

In this im­age ob­tained from NASA, the Cu­rios­ity Mars rover took this selfie on May 12, 2019

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