Gravitational waves, lab-grown bones and bullet-shredding foam: The year in science
It would be easy to feel a little gloomy looking at the sociopolitical landscape of 2016: terrorist attacks around the globe, deep tragedy in Syria, Brexit, accelerated planetary warming, and one of the most contentious elections in the United States in recent history.
But turn your attention to the scientific landscape and things look a lot more hopeful. This was the year in which we took gene editing to new heights, got serious about a cancer vaccine, set a new world record for converting sunlight to electricity and detected the very fabric of the universe – gravitational waves – for the first time. Before 2016 gets rolled over by the tide of time, join us as we toast the most mind-boggling, world-changing, amazing advancements scientists made around the globe this year.
The stuff of life
It's been over 13 years since the entire human genome was sequenced and each year since has brought more promising advances in the field of genetics. One of the biggest breakthroughs in the field was the CRISPR method of gene editing (see this video for details), which can basically let scientists cut and paste genes to and from strands of DNA. In 2012, researchers discovered a CRISPR method of gene editing using a protein known as Cas9, which let them manipulate genes with amazing accuracy, leading to breakthroughs in how we could treat and possibly eliminate certain diseases by removing and replacing troublesome genes.
This year, CRISPR-Cas9 continued to prove itself an amazing tool, showing promise in combating blindness and HIV and playing a role in identifying the Zika virus. It even helped make a tasty meal from cabbage that had been altered using the technique, making 2016 the first time such a meal had been served.
While experiments using the method have heretofore been restricted to animal specimens and lab dishes, this year also saw the first human trials of the technique – in a patient suffering from lung cancer. CRISPR-Cas9 was used to remove an immune-system-suppressing gene often triggered by cancer cells in the hopes that the re-engineered cells can battle tumors without fail. The study is expected to conclude in April 2018.
The stuff of the universe
Roughly a century ago, Albert Einstein predicted that violent events in the universe could cause ripples in spacetime. He called these ripples gravitational waves and, until this year, they remained strictly hypothetical.
On February 11, scientists at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO) announced that their highly sensitive detectors had indeed picked up gravitational waves emitted when two massive black holes smashed into each other 1.3 billion years ago.
If that wasn't enough, the LIGO team announced on June 15 that its system, which uses 4-km (2.5-mile)-long arms and laser beams to detect movements up to one-thousandth the width of a proton, picked up a second set of the waves. The scientists determined that this collision was between two smaller black holes, and that one of them was spinning like a top.
Last month, LIGO began scanning for more gravitational waves once again, after a series of upgrades.
One astronomer marked this time in history as the "era of gravitational waves." Adding credence to that declaration was the successful test of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) Pathfinder instrument, which was launched on March 1 this year and uses a free-fall technique to search for gravitational waves by how they influence two small cubes contained in a vacuum chamber within.
The test flight was just to prove that the technology would work, which it did. The LISA Pathfinder has just entered the extended phase of its test mission and, if all goes well, the plan is to produce a fully functional craft that will assist LIGO with its work sensing changes in the very fabric of our universe.
The right touch
A sad byproduct of the seemingly endless military conflicts around the world these days is that many soldiers return home having lost a limb in battle. Combine that with millions of land mines left over from past conflicts, plus accidents and medical conditions that cause the loss of limbs or the ability to control them, and the need for smart prostheses becomes clear. Fortunately, science is working hard to try to restore as much normalcy as possible to such victims.
Earlier this year, a man who had lost his hand in an accident tried out a bionic fingertip wired into the nerves of his upper arm and was able to distinguish between rough and smooth surfaces with 96 percent accuracy. Later in the year, a man who was paralyzed in a car accident in 2004 received a robotic arm equipped with sensors that were wired directly into his brain, which allowed him to feel each of his bionic fingers along with sensations of touch and pressure.
With researchers at at John Hopkins University developing the means for direct mind control of individual fingers on a robotic prosthesis and DARPA clearing FDA approval to market its DEKA bionic arm, which relies on muscle impulses to execute fine movements, the days when a missing limb was considered a hindrance may soon be a thing of the past.
Growing body parts
Growing organs in the lab sounds more like a task for Dr. Frankenstein than modern researchers, yet 2016 saw some impressive gains in this field. True, all are currently more significant as research tools than actual replacement parts, but as a sign of just how much a part of life lab-made tissue is becoming, this was the year NASA announced a US$500,000 competition to develop functional lab-grown human tissue which, it says, can help them study the effects of extended time in deep space without having to use actual human beings.
This year also saw lab-grown bone fuse with a pig's jaw that eventually got taken over by the animal's actual bone structure; lab-grown eye tissue bring back sight to blind rabbits; lab-grown mini brains that could replace animal testing and provide more reliable results; and lab-made liver tissue that could help us safely test new drugs.
While not quite a lab-made body part, it's worth noting that this was also the year the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an artificial pancreas designed to both monitor and inject insulin automatically in diabetic patients.
It's easy to think of scientists as lab-bound, looking down microscope tubes rather than out their own windows. But in fact, many researchers look to the natural world for inspiration and 2016 is proof that some of the most impressive scientific breakthroughs come from our fellow animals.
This year alone, scientists turned to the octopus to find out how to make a next-gen adhesive that is temperature sensitive; they looked to the mantis shrimp for inspiration on making robotic eyes as well as better body armor; and they tapped the wisdom of owl feathers to improve turbine design. Meanwhile, moth eyes were the inspiration for self-cleaning windows and beetle shells just might lead to ice-free aircraft wings.
And not all man-and-nature breakthroughs have to do with imitating the natural world, or biomimicry. Some rely on harvesting substances directly from Mother Nature. For example, this year University of Pittsburgh researchers found that harvesting biological material from zebrafish harnessed that creature's ability to regenerate its own heart and helped repair a damaged mouse heart. Meanwhile, another team turned to the tick spit's ability to avoid detection by our immune systems to potentially help people suffering from autoimmune diseases.
Bending the rules of physics
The winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics all helped turn traditional assumptions in the field on their heads by showing that when matter is put under extreme conditions, it behaves most strangely. But they're not the only ones who toyed with – or discovered exceptions to – the accepted physical laws of the universe.
In April, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Lab revealed a strange new state of water called tunnelling, that added to the ubiquitous substance's well-known states of solid, liquid and gas. Scientists at UC San Diego, MIT and Harvard University, meanwhile, created new energy-carrying particles at the nanoscale called plexcitons, which are something of a marriage between excitons and plasmons (if that helps at all). And in Australia, a group of Jedi researchers froze the movement of light in a cloud of ultracold rubidium atoms, beamed it with a laser, and brought practical quantum computing one more step closer to reality.
And lest physics steals all the limelight from its cousin, chemistry, it's good to remember that this year started with the confirmation of four new elements that have now been added to the periodic table as nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts), and oganesson (Og).
Here comes the sun (and wind and waves)
Solar power continued to steadily gain ground around the world in 2016, but it is still often challenged by naysayers who point to its inherent inefficiency when it comes to turning light into power. The Australians seem to disagree.
This year, the world record for such a process was smashed once again, proving that the technology is finally coming into its own. Researchers in Australia reached a 34.5 percent sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency by using a prism to break sunlight into four bands, beating the previous record of 24 percent. Later this year, fellow countrymen from the Australian National University were able to convert sunlight to steam with a whopping 97-percent efficiency. And coming in just at the end of the year, a team from Sydney's University of New South Wales set a new record in perovskite solar cell efficiency, hitting the 12.1 percent mark. Perovskite cells might well be the solar material of the future as they are simple and inexpensive to produce and so flexible that they can even be sprayed on surfaces.
Elon Musk had almost as simple a solution for making solar power more widespread this year with his solar roofing tiles that eliminate the unattractive panels we now need to mount on our roofs.
Beyond advancements in materials and efficiencies, 2016 also saw numerous countries around the world get serious not only about solar power, but also energy produced by wind and waves, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) reporting that renewables have now overtaken coal as the world's largest source of installed power capacity.
This year the world's largest solar plant consisting of 2.5 million modules came online in India; two large-scale solar plants were officially opened in Australia; the largest solar array in the Caribbean booted up in the Dominican Republic; the world's first large-scale tidal power project kicked off in Scotland; Norway announced plans to build Europe's largest onshore wind-power project; and the first-ever grid-connected wave power station in Europe began operations in Gibraltar. Even the notoriously oil-hungry United States saw its first offshore wind farm start spinning off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island.
In addition to grabbing the energy that's all around us in the forms of wind, water and sunlight, in 2014 researchers also made some strides toward the goal of one-day generating power at the atomic level through nuclear fusion.
In Germany, the Wendelstein 7-X fusion stellarator, which was first booted up at the end of 2015, was heated to temperatures around 80 million degrees and used to smash hydrogen atoms together to alter the state of the gas. Germany's Federal Chancellor (and quantum physicist) Angela Merkel pushed the button that initiated a test that converted a small amount of hydrogen gas into plasma and held it in that state for a quarter of a second.
Meanwhile, the Chinese did one better. Inside their EAST tokamak reactor, hydrogen plasma was sustained for a mighty 102 seconds.
While these are certainly baby steps on the way to useful nuclear fusion, they are promising nonetheless. The goal is to one day be able to hold hydrogen plasma inside an electrical field for extended periods of time to harness it as a source of nearly endless, clean energy.
While chemotherapy, radiation and surgery have thus far been our biggest weapons in the fight against cancer, adaptive immunotherapy – in which the body's own immune system is rigged to combat the disease – is showing great promise, as a 2016 study showed. In it, 27 out of 29 patients with blood cancer had no sign of the disease in their bone marrow after the treatment was administered. Couple that with the fact that a German study showed promise for developing a cheap universal cancer vaccine, and 2016 just might go down as the year we truly began to turn the tide in our fight against the Big C.
This year also showed researchers making strides in understanding and combatting Alzheimer's disease. Researchers uncovered an enzyme implicated in the condition that could make fighting it as simple as the way in which we beat high cholesterol; found a compound that reversed the symptoms of both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease in fruit flies; discovered that a component of marijuana could help fight the disease; and developed an Alzheimer's blood test that showed 100 percent accuracy in clinical trials.
Oh, and a cure for the common cold? Yup, we even got closer to that this year.
Finally, let's take a look at the new materials born from the brains of researchers in 2016.
We had a lightweight metal foam that turns armor-piercing bullets to dust; crazy strong steel that bounces back into shape instead of breaking; highly elastic metallic glass; a paper-like ceramic material that resisted 24 hours of 1,200° C (2,192° F) temperatures; a gold/titanium alloy that's four times stronger than titanium alone; a water-repellant wonder tape; next-gen concrete that bends instead of cracking; bio-glass that can replace cartiledge in the human body; and yes, even transparent wood.
Top that 2017!