Science addressing Covid-19 takes centre stage at Breakthrough Prize

10 Sep 2021

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From genetic sequencing to super-accurate quantum clocks, the 2022 awards recognised innovators in physics, life sciences and maths.

The winners of the 2022 Breakthrough Prize have been announced, granting a total of $15.75m in prizes to pioneering researchers and early-career scientists. This is the award’s 10th year running, but the usual festivities have been postponed into 2022 due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

With high-profile sponsors such as Mark Zuckerberg and Anne Wojcicki, these awards are set apart from the Nobel science prizes by their recognition of researchers at different career stages in fundamental physics, life sciences and maths. With awards dedicated especially for early-stage researchers, the prizes are often a chance to recognise the up-and-coming scientists of the next generation.

The five central breakthrough prizes each come with an award of $3m, split between the winners for their research. In the past, this included 1,370 scientists receiving one award, but this year the most winners of a single award were groups of four.

Life sciences

It won’t come as any surprise that pioneering work that helped deal with the Covid-19 pandemic was central to this year’s awards. Two of the three prizes in life sciences were awarded to scientists that laid the groundwork for the world’s response.

The first went to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their decades of research on mRNA therapies. Despite facing scepticism, the pair continued their efforts in the field, creating the technology that would be essential to both the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines. Not only that, but these vaccine technologies hold promise for treatments in HIV, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Next was the advanced sequencing technologies of Shankar Balasubramanian, David Klenerman and Pascal Mayer. The ability to identify and characterise the virus so quickly is how humanity is capable of tracking variants and central to understanding the virus. Before this research, re-sequencing a full human genome cost millions and took months. Now, it can be done in a day for approximately $600.

Finally, Jeffery W Kelly was recognised for his work in amyloid disease, a condition that affects the heart and nervous system. By understanding the mechanism that kills cells and tissues in patients, he was able to synthesise a molecule to stabilise patients with the illness. This resulted in a drug that significantly slows the progress of the disease.

Maths and physics

Takuro Mochizuki took home a multimillion-dollar prize for his work in algebraic geometry. This field uses geometric objects and differential geometry to solve equations. His work involved expanding the boundaries of knowledge in the field, particularly around objects called holonomic D-modules.

Meanwhile, in the world of physics, Hidetoshi Katori and Jun Ye were awarded for their independent work in the precision of time. They developed techniques to use lasers that were able to trap, cool and probe atoms, resulting in quantum clocks that are so accurate, they would lose less than a second if they ran for 15bn years.

With applications ranging from quantum computing to the hunt for gravitational waves and dark matter, these new clocks will be fundamental in unpacking the complex world of physics.

New horizons

As well as the central awards, the Breakthrough Prize also recognises six New Horizon winners with a sum of $100,000 each. This year, winners included Suchitra Sebastian for measurements relating to high temperature superconductors and a group prize for research concerning the novel phases of non-equilibrium quantum matter.

Finally, the awards recognised three early-career women mathematicians with the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prizes. Sarah Peluse was awarded for her work in polynomial patterns in dense sets, Hong Wang advanced the field of restriction conjectures and local smoothing conjecture, and Yilin Wang won for “innovative and far-reaching work on the Loewner energy of planar curves”.

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news

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