From tiny tardigrades to the world's largest artificial sun: The year in science, 2017
2017 was a busy year for science. From the bottom of the world to the bottom of the sea, new discoveries popped up all over the place. Researchers got new tools, doctors got new medicines, and tables were laid with new foods. Meanwhile, the ultimate shut-ins got their first glimmer of freedom and we learned who really will inherit the Earth. So let's look back at the highlights of this year in science.
The excess use of antibiotics has come home to roost as doctors encounter more superbugs that are immune to the likes of penicillin and tetracycline. So it was good news when Oregon State University came up with a peptide-conjugated phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomer (PPMO) that can counter the toughest of the antibiotic-resistant strains.
Another killer looks to be on the ropes (hopefully) after Bruno Doiron and Ralph DeFronzo, of the UT Health San Antonio, cured diabetes in mice using gene transfer to alter cells in the pancreases of mice to make them think they're beta cells and start making insulin. Not to be outdone, Oxford University is testing a universal flu vaccine that creates influenza-virus targeting T-cells to take on the disease, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham is working on creating genetically engineered pigs to make them suitable as organ donors for human transplants.
But the most dramatic breakthroughs have been in helping people who are trapped in the worst of all prisons, their own bodies. The French National Center for Scientific Research used a new technique that electronically stimulates the vagus nerve to spark consciousness in a man after 15 years in a vegetative state, allowing doctors to reclassify him as minimally conscious.
However, top marks go to the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, which uses an advanced brain-computer interface to communicate with people who are in a Complete Locked-In State (CLIS). These are people who are completely conscious, but are unable to move or speak in any way. By using a computer to read their brain functions, the researchers could get patients to answer simple yes/no questions.
Though it may sound like something used to prepare Peking duck, CRISPR (or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a genetic sequence that bacteria use for self defense. It's also the basis for the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology that allows scientist to precisely place DNA strands where wanted for diagnosis or the treatment of diseases.
This year, scientist have been as busy with the CRISPR tool as a child with a new toy on Christmas morning. Maybe even busier.
The University of Pittsburgh is using the technique to attack cancer's "command center" to fight aggressive tumors in mice. It's also being used to remove the genetic disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy from a human embryo and to create skin grafts that can treat diabetes in mice by stimulating the pancreas with hormones. And it's been used to prevent the HIV virus from hiding inside cells in experimental animals.
But it hasn't been without controversy. A study from Columbia University Medical Center implicated the CRISPR tool with introducing hundreds of unintended genetic mutations into the genome, though another casts doubt on the Columbia study's veracity.
In the paleontology corner, scientists were busy making additions and edits to life's family tree. Clocking in at 250 million years ago, a crocodile-like reptile called Teleocrater rhadinus turns out to be the oldest common ancestor of crocodiles, dinosaurs and birds. Not that human beings have any reason to feel smug because our earliest ancestors from 145 million years ago are a pair of rat-like mammals called Durlstotherium and Durlstodon that lived in Devonshire. If that isn't depressing enough, our even earlier non-mammalian ancestor was a frightening looking Chinese fish called Saccorhytus coronarius that lived 345 million years ago.
Still, it could have been worse. At least we're not related to a beach ball-sized horror named Beelzebufo, or "devil toad," that lived in Madagascar about 68 million years ago and had a taste for dinosaurs. That's one family member you wouldn't want to invite over for dinner.
Antarctica was a hotspot of activity in 2017. A lively crack in the ice cap forced a British Antarctic base to ski safety only to have to close down for the winter when another crack appeared to threaten its new location. One ice-shelf crack finally reached its destination, causing a giant iceberg to break free and expose a lost world hidden for 120,000 years that saw scientists running from their shrimping nets.
Meanwhile, a South Pole selfie with a purpose was beamed to the International Space Station in a demonstration of a new internet-like communications system. And the mapmakers were kept busy when it was learned that Britain's tallest mountain is in Antarctica.
2017 had something for the H Rider Haggard or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fan as a "lost" continent – or bits of one – was found on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Once part of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland, the island then became part of a fragment that formed the modern day Indian subcontinent, Madagascar, and the Seychelles. When these three split, poor Mauritius was caught in the middle and ripped to shreds.
Another lost continent candidate that hit the news this year was Zealandia, which Australian and New Zealand scientists believe covers an area of about 1.9 million mi² (4.9 million km²). You may wonder how careless cartographers have to be to overlook a continent that's larger than India, but they have the excuse that most of it is on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with only New Zealand and New Caledonia peeping out of the water. That's why a recent two-month expedition to Zealandia had to rely on a deep-sea drilling rig to do the exploring.
For those whose thoughts turn more towards what's for dinner, 2017 had some delicious servings. For example, it turns out that the domestic chicken that graces the Sunday table is the product of the dietary rules of medieval Christian monks. Breeding for the modern characteristics of good egg layers that are passive and aren't afraid of people is due to finding a way of getting around the monastic Benedictine restrictions on eating meat during lent, which didn't apply to poultry.
But maybe the domestic chicken is due for the chop now that chicken meat grown without the chicken and duck without the duck is on the menu. As a side dish, perhaps a healthier rasher of bacon from genetically modified low-fat pigs will do the trick. And for a snack, how about helping to save the oceans by tucking into a bag of jellyfish crisps?
However, it isn't all futuristic food. Some are quite familiar – only tweaked to combat malnutrition in the developing world. Golden rice has been around for years with its yellowish tinge advertising its improved levels of vitamin A. Now, Ohio State University has come up with a golden potato that not only has more vitamin A, but vitamin E thrown in for good measure. And let's not forget the Queensland University of Technology's golden banana designed to make the world's most widely eaten food into a vitamin A powerhouse.
Back in the lab, scientists got some new tools to probe the mysteries of the Universe. In Germany, the world's largest artificial sun was constructed for various research projects, including developing processes for producing hydrogen fuel using sunlight. Higher up the electromagnetic spectrum, the world's largest X-ray laser lit up for the first time in Hamburg. The 3.4 km (2.1 mi) long European X-ray Free Electron Laser produced a pulsing laser light with a wavelength of 0.8 nm at one pulse per second and can capture images at atomic resolution.
Of course, such instruments depend on being sure of what you're actually measuring, so to keep things accurate, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology has redefined the kilogram in terms of Planck's constant. This isn't being done just to be aggravating. It's because the cylinder of platinum/iridium alloy in Paris that has defined the kilogram since 1879 and its 40 duplicates around the world keep getting heavier due to contamination, so a more abstract method is being adopted to keep things in sync.
If redefining the kilogram wasn't enough, scientists have spent 2017 finding new forms of matter that would give Sir Isaac Newton fits.
Harvard claims to have created solid metallic hydrogen by squeezing a cryogenic sample of the element in a diamond anvil cell where it was subjected to 495 gigapascal, or more than 71.7 million lb/in². This broke down the tightly bound molecules into atomic hydrogen, converting it into a metal that is solid, shiny, ductile, malleable and a good conductor of heat and electricity.
Other researchers have come up with "time crystals" that are a novel form of matter that has an atomic structure that doesn't repeat itself just in space, but in time. This has been described as being like a jelly that doesn't merely jiggle when you tap it and then stops, but starts itself up again periodically. And that's one of the least odd examples.
Then there's a negative-mass fluid that sneers at the Second Law of Motion. According to Washington State University, the strange liquid is a Bose-Einstein condensate – a quirky state of matter that acts like a superfluid, where particles move in waves and can flow without losing energy. The upshot is, if you push it forward, it will accelerate backwards.
Another hot topic in 2017 was gravitational waves, research on which nabbed the Nobel Prize in Physics. These ripples in the space/time continuum are caused by super high-energy events, like the collision of black holes in the center of distant gravity and scientists have sought to detect them since Einstein predicted them in his general theory of relativity.
First found in 2015, gravitational waves were detected this year by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory in Louisiana and Washington State, but also by the Virgo detector in Italy at the same time, marking a new milestone in the observation of the Universe.
These waves are so fundamental a part of the Universe's very fabric that scientists regard them as important clues as to its nature and history. Small wonder that there was a spot of excitement when IBM scientists observed a quantum effect called an axial-gravitational anomaly in recently-discovered materials called Weyl semimetals. Or that NASA looked to the eyes of the common lobster to create new optics to help observe gravitational waves.
Best of the rest
In stories that aren't easy to pigeon-hole we learned that the 400 year-old mystery of the enigmatic Prince Rupert's drops has been cracked. These drops looks like a glass tadpole from a beginner's crafts festival, but each is so strong that it can take a hammer hit without breaking. But if you break its tail, which can be done with finger pressure, the drop explodes into powder. Why it does this has perplexed scientists for four centuries, but a team from Purdue University, the University of Cambridge, and Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia has an answer.
The drop has an outside layer of powerful compressive forces pushing inward. These are balanced out by the tensile or pulling forces inside the drop, but if they're thrown out of balance by breaking the tail, it sets up a supersonic shock wave that peels the drop apart.
A more practical discovery is MIT finding a way to make pasta that can be flat-packed in the bag, so it takes up very little room, yet contains a top layer of relatively high-density gelatin and a bottom layer containing lower-density gelatin, so it can twist into complex 3D shapes when cooked. A Boston chef says it even tastes good.
Of course, one important function of science is to supply fodder for pub arguments, so the discovery by a team led by Suzana Herculano-Houzel, Associate Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University that dogs have a higher neuron count than cats will spark plenty of debates over which is smarter.
And finally, we learned that you can forget about cockroaches, it's the utterly unkillable tardigrades that are not only the most adorable microscopic teddy bear creatures on Earth, but they'll outlive us all. According to Oxford and Harvard, they're so tough that nothing less than the Sun turning into a red giant and burning our planet to a cinder will kill them off, but we still wouldn't bet against the little scrappers.