From the oldest galaxies ever recorded, to artificial organs and quantum mechanics, research labs all across the world saw great discoveries in 2022. The past year has been important for research in many areas of science and technology — and at the University of Toronto, in particular, we saw studies and discoveries that changed the global landscape of fields such as astronomy, neuroscience, and more. 

Here are some of the biggest stories from the last year, and the impacts they could have on future research.

A galaxy with the universe’s oldest star clusters discovered by U of T researchers

As 2021 ended, we saw the culmination of one of the biggest space projects in mankind’s history. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched by NASA on December 25, 2021, and has since brought us tremendous insight into the universe. Throughout 2022, research teams all across the world have been using JWST’s immense capabilities to help us uncover more than we’ve ever known about the universe we live in. 

A research team at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at U of T, led by Lamiya Mawla and Kartheik G. Iyer, was able to use the JWST to identify some of the most distant and oldest star clusters ever recorded. The sparkler cluster containing these stars, located almost nine billion light years away, was determined to have formed close to the first time it was even possible for star formation to occur.

These discoveries gave us a look at the earliest phases of star formation in our universe, a feat that has been difficult in research thus far. Although many stars around us are quite young, most have already formed so we don’t have a lot of information on how they come into being.

A major step towards creating bionic hearts

The last decade has seen an increased interest in the development of organoids, which are bioartificial organs that could theoretically be used to replace organ donations. 

In 2022, U of T researchers were able to develop the first bioartificial model of a key part of the heart. Sargol Okhovatian and Mohammad Hossein Mohammadi, from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, were able to develop a smaller, to-scale version of the heart’s left ventricle, made from living tissue and cells and capable of pumping a small amount of blood through a bioreactor. 

These lab-grown models, with such accuracy, offer a new way to study a wide range of cardiovascular conditions, and could open up potential avenues for therapies treating heart conditions. Miniature models such as the one developed by Okhovatian and Mohammadi could allow researchers to study cell function, tissue function, and overall organ function, without the need for any invasive procedures.

Seeing the hidden universe

2022 was a big year for astronomy and cosmology. While galaxies and stars are responsible for most of the light we can see, almost 90 per cent of the atoms in the universe exist separate from them. These atoms exist largely as a thin, extremely diffuse gas. This gas is virtually invisible and incredibly hard to detect throughout the universe, but we know it exists.

Cosmologist Adam Hincks, an assistant professor and researcher at the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics,  and his international team of scientists have been working to detect this gas using Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, the oldest source of light in the universe. By observing CMB radiation, Hincks and his team discovered that the gas in a 40-million-light-year-long region had a mass of about 50 billion suns — or 50 times as much as the entirety of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

This research demonstrates a new way to study the gas that makes up so much of our universe, allowing us to detect and learn more about a region that has been invisible to us so far.

New rapid antibody tests developed to monitor COVID protection levels

A major focus of the scientific community in 2022 was the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus is continuously evolving, causing new institutional strains and spikes in cases. Despite vaccines created to combat the disease and the availability of multiple booster shots, we still don’t know enough about how often we need to boost our immune system and prevent disease.

Igor Stagljar, a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research and at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, and Shawn Owen, an associate professor of pharmaceutics and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Utah, led a study to combat this and better fight the pandemic. The study aimed to develop inexpensive but accurate rapid testing mechanisms that specifically measure Sars-CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies which work to prevent infection. These rapid tests look for how well-equipped our bodies still are to prevent us from facing major COVID symptoms if we are infected. 

Stagljar and Owen found that vaccines and prior infection only protected against past variants of COVID, and were unable to cope with newer ones such as Omicron. This was part of a series of studies on immune responses to COVID-19 studies across the world that have increased our understanding of the benefits and limitations of vaccines and the immune protections they provide.

Feeling emotions is the key to improving mental health in the long term

When faced with intense emotional pressure from mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, many of us tend to shut down. We push away our emotions and continue about our day instead of feeling and processing them, either because it takes a lot of effort and energy or it’s too painful.

But the more we learn about these mental health conditions, the more it seems that repression might be the wrong way to go about handling our emotions. Norman Farb, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and Zindel Segal, a distinguished professor of psychology in mood disorders at U of T Scarborough, carried out a study that found that individuals who repressed their feelings were the most likely to experience relapses into depressive or anxiety-related disorders, even after going through therapy.

In the study, which was the largest neuroimaging study conducted on mental health relapses to date, Farb and Segal discovered that the brains of individuals with past experiences of depression had a tendency to shut down parts of the brain responsible for emotional processing when faced with emotionally-charged video clips, enhancing this cycle of repression and relapse. Meanwhile, individuals who were able to process emotions through bodily sensations were less likely to suffer a relapse.

These discoveries have the potential to lead to earlier detection of depression and anxiety while enabling better therapy techniques.

Quantum innovation leads to improved energy resources

One field of research that has made quite a lot of progress this year has been the collaboration between quantum mechanics and sustainable energy. 

All current solar panels are made with high-purity silicon, a material that requires a large amount of energy to produce, making it costly and difficult to widely adopt. One alternative to silicon is known as perovskite, a material with an incredibly unique crystal structure that is being studied in labs around the world.

The Sargent Group lab here at U of T is looking to harness the power of quantum mechanics to better stabilize the structure of perovskite and allow it to work as an intermediate layer that can effectively convert solar energy into electricity. The researchers are also working on methods that rely on quantum mechanical principles to create catalysts that can aid in the creation of hydrogen. Today, almost all hydrogen used in our energy systems comes from natural gas, but the ability to create catalysts used in the hydrogen formation process will speed up essential reactions and allow for cleaner energy sources.