Good News From 2020


Twenty-twenty. What a year. As someone has recently remarked on Twitter, I can’t believe we stayed until midnight and cheered for it when it arrived. In the past, 2020 has had pretty positive associations, what with the perfect vision, literally and metaphorically. Now, I suspect, at least in the near future, this otherwise cool combination of digits will evoke reactions similar to those of a curse.

The news this year has certainly been so bad and so crazy that it’s now a meme to wonder what sort of calamity next month will bring. An alien invasion, anyone? The media is full of bad news at the best of times – it seems somehow more interesting, more edgy, and gets more eyeballs – but 2020 has been exceptional even by the dismal standards of the modern news business. Of course it doesn’t help that the top jobs in America, Britain, Australia and many other places around the world (Israel, Brazil) are in the hands of the opposition as far as the media party is concerned. How different would the tone of the coverage be now if Obama was in his third term as President? Instead, reporting gets weaponised to damn by association those currently in power but out of favour with the trendy left. The constant stream of negativity is not just disturbing and disappointing, it’s also unhealthy. Any wonder that depression, stress and anxiety are on the rise throughout our societies, that we are increasingly polarised, on the edge, and thinking in apocalyptic terms?

As it has been my habit from time to time, I went around fishing for good news in the ocean of despondency, tragedy and conflict. I quickly found out it was more difficult than I first thought. Most of what these days goes for good news can be more accurately described as heart-warming stories (A lonely retiree spends his time teaching leprous orphans how to play bagpipes) or the “silver lining” angles (Tourism industry is dead; on the flip side ravenous rabid wolves, long thought extinct, are back roaming the streets of the French Riviera). Genuine stories of human progress and betterment are rarer than Joe Biden’s lucid moments or Trump’s expressions of modesty. A “USA Today” piece yesterday “Good news prevails: 100 positive things that happened in 2020 (so far)” is anything but, and includes such inanities as celebrating the bestselling status of “White Fragility”.

But below are what I think are ten genuinely good pieces of news that have somehow managed to happen this year, and needless to say have largely fallen through the media cracks. So in no particular order:

1. Oxytocin might cure degenerative brain diseases

Yep, that nice “love” hormone has a potential to treat, possibly even cure, conditions like Alzheimer’s or dementia:

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder in which the nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain and the connections among them degenerate slowly, causing severe memory loss and deterioration in motor skills and communication. One of the main causes is the accumulation of a protein called amyloid beta (Aβ) in clusters around the brain neurons, which hampers their activity and triggers their degeneration.

This deterioration affects a specific trait of the neurons, called “synaptic plasticity”, which is the ability of synapses—where neurons swap signals—to adapt to an increase or decrease in brain activity.

Synaptic plasticity is crucial to the development of learning and cognitive functions in the hippocampus—the area of the brain where new memories are formed and skills are learned.

When oxytocin was added to the brains of mice, scientists found the signaling abilities increased, which researchers say suggests that oxytocin can reverse the impairment of synaptic plasticity caused by the amyloid beta protein.


2. Lab-bred mosquitoes could help wipe out malaria and other tropical diseases

Google’s doing something good through its sister research company Verily:

Since 2017, the company has released millions of lab-bred Aedes aegypti male mosquitoes into several Fresno County neighborhoods during mosquito season. The insects are bred in Verily labs to be infected with a common bacterium called Wolbachia. When these male mosquitoes mate with females in the wild, the offspring never hatch.

In results of the trial published on Monday, Verily revealed that throughout the peak of the 2018 mosquito season, from July to October, Wolbachia-infected males successfully suppressed more than 93% of the female mosquito population at field test sites. Only female mosquitoes bite…

In the arid climate of the Central Valley, disease is an unlikely result of a mosquito bite. But in the hot, humid regions of the tropics and subtropics, diseases caused by the Aedes aegypti, such as dengue fever, Zika virus and chikungunya, kill tens of thousands of people every year. Releasing masses of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes into the wild might wipe out entire populations of deadly mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.

Mind you, suppressing females might get Google into trouble.

3. Sprinkling dust boosts agriculture, doubles CO2 removed

Sprinkle basalt dust (a very common rock, too, rich in calcium and magnesium) on soil and you get a double bang for the buck – not only does it fertilise soil and increase agricultural production, it also helps to sequester carbon dioxide from the air:

Basalt, an abundant fast-weathering rock with the required mineral chemistry, could be ideal for implementing land-based ERW [Enhanced Silicate Rock Weathering] because of its potential co-benefits for crop production and soil health. ERW liberates base cations, generating alkalinity, so that atmospheric CO2 is converted into dissolved inorganic carbon (principally hydrogen carbonate ions; HCO3) that is removed via soil drainage waters. These weathering products are transported via land surface runoff to the oceans with a storage lifetime exceeding 100,000 years.

4. Malnutrition significantly declining throughout Asia

More people but also more food:

Findings from a recent United Nation report states that the number of undernourished and hungry people in India has declined by 60 million over the last decade, and other Asian regions are also experiencing declines.

India has the second-largest population on earth, but, fortunately, even as the population is growing, the amount of food insecurity is falling.

Considered a leader in authoritative reporting on malnutrition, the UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World estimated that the number of undernourished people in India declined by 20%, from 249.4 million in 2004 to 189.2 million in 2019.

Furthermore, the other population powerhouse, China, has experienced similar drops in the rate of malnutrition—as has the entire Asian continent.

In Central Asia, prevalence of undernourishment has fallen from 11.1% in 2005 to 5.9% in 2019. In the same period in East Asia, there was a 6% drop from 14.1% to 8.3%, while in Southeast Asia it has been cut in half—from 18.5% to 9.2%. Though in some parts of the world the improvements have been seen over decades, these historically communism-ravaged lands have only improved over the last 15 years.

5. World breaks record in cereal production

As mentioned above, more people around the world are getting more to eat because we’re producing more and more food:

World cereal production is poised to reach a new record level of 2790 million tonnes (Mt) in 2020 – up 9.3Mt from the May forecast – surpassing the record-high registered in 2019 by as much as 3 per cent, according to the World Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) ‘Cereal Supply and Demand Brief’.

The FAO’s wheat production forecasts have been raised for India and the Russian Federation, more than offsetting a cutback to the European Union and the United Kingdom expected outputs.

Global wheat production is pegged at 761.5Mt, up 3.2Mt from the previous month and now on par with last year’s above-average out-turn.

The bulk of the monthly increase reflects an upward revision to Australia’s wheat production forecast, mostly resting on improved yield prospects underpinned by earlier widespread rainfall and favourable weather forecasts for the remainder of the season.

6. Gene-manipulation as a way of fighting obesity

Because too much food can be a problem too:

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have successfully disabled a gene in specific mouse cells, preventing mice from becoming obese even after being fed a high-fat diet.

Macrophages, vital inflammatory cells which are responsible for detecting, engulfing and destroying pathogens, were blocked by scientists. Since obesity is correlated with chronic low-grade inflammation, the researchers tested if reducing inflammation could help control weight gain and obesity.

The study was published on April 20, 2020, in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

According to Steven L. Teitelbaum, MD, the principal investigator of the study and Wilma and Roswell Messing Professor of Pathology & Immunology, their study has developed a proof of concept that it is possible to regulate weight gain by modulating the activity of the inflammatory cells.

He adds that it might work in several ways, but their team believed that it might be able to control obesity and its complications by managing inflammation better.

7. Artificial Intelligence develops another kind of antibiotic

AI might enslave us one day, but at this moment is helping humanity survive:

Researchers at MIT have used artificial intelligence to develop a new antibiotic compound that can kill even some antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. They created a computer model of millions of chemical compounds and used a machine-learning algorithm to pick out those which could be effective antibiotics, then selected one particular compound for testing and found it to be effective against E. coli and other bacteria in mouse models.

Most new antibiotics developed today are variations on existing drugs, using the same mechanisms. The new antibiotic uses a different mechanism than these existing drugs, meaning it can treat infections that current drugs cannot.

8. Taking up a hobby can help fight depression

Being interested, engaged and busy is good for your mental health:

Data came from 8,780 adults over age 50 in the English Longitudinal Study on Aging. 72% of those in the study reported having a hobby, and 15.6% were deemed inside the threshold for depression using a national epidemiological scale.

During the period of time examined, from 2004 to 2017, having a hobby reduced the risk of developing depression by about 30%. The effects were observed in both men and women, and were consistent in people who had depressive symptoms before the study period began and who developed it after.

Looking at the data, the researchers found that if people who didn’t have depression or a hobby were to take up a hobby they would then be conferred 32% lower odds of developing depressive symptoms.

Remarkably, their models also found that those with depression who took up a hobby had improvements in symptoms—and 272% higher odds of recovering from that depression.

9. Breaking down plastic with an enzyme

100,000 micro-organisms were screened to find this beauty belonging to a leaf composting bug:

A mutant bacterial enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles for recycling in hours has been created by scientists.

The enzyme, originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves, reduced the bottles to chemical building blocks that were then used to make high-quality new bottles. Existing recycling technologies usually produce plastic only good enough for clothing and carpets.

The company behind the breakthrough, Carbios, said it was aiming for industrial-scale recycling within five years. It has partnered with major companies including Pepsi and L’Oréal to accelerate development. Independent experts called the new enzyme a major advance.

10. Fish stocks are recovering

Predictions of lifeless oceans, stripped off all fish to feed hungry humanity, are proving to be wrong:

In the most comprehensive review of fisheries’ management and fishing management on a per region basis, to date, an international team of researchers concluded that fish stocks are mostly increasing in these world waters.

In their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team gathered data from 50% of the world’s fish stocks, which include harvest rate, recovery rate, fishing pressure, and population numbers, as well as 50% of the world’s fisheries—including management strategies, fluctuations, and predictions in maximum sustainable yield.

The conclusion provided in their paper is striking—good news that may be surprising to most. Where commercial fishing is managed, stocks are growing.

“This article compiles estimates of the status of fish stocks from all available scientific assessments, comprising roughly half of the world’s fish catch,” the authors begin, “and shows that, on average, fish stocks are increasing where they are assessed.”

“Where fisheries are intensively managed, the stocks are above target levels or rebuilding.”

Might not be much in the greater scheme of pandemic, economic depression, racial tension, Chinese jingoism and general wokeness, but hey, we’ll take what we can get! Keep your head up.

Main photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash