The Big Science of 2017

So here we are, a month into the new year, a brand-new semester, and it’s pretty safe to say we’re not exactly missing 2017. Politically, environmentally and morally exhausted, it is very easy to view those 12 gruelling months as humanity being stuck as the worst possible timeline, especially in the realm of science

Flat-Earthers, Climate-change deniers and parents against vaccines seemed to dominate headlines and governing bodies throughout the year. Antarctica lost a chunk of ice bigger than the entirety of Donegal, the Sahara keeps spontaneously getting snow, and just in case you were feeling sheltered here in Ireland, scientists reckon that planet Earth is up to 13,000 years overdue for a super-volcano eruption.

However… let’s not dive headfirst into the Yellowstone caldera just yet! With media so often showing us the worst of global affairs, it’s possible that you missed some of the coolest scientific breakthroughs and discoveries of the past year!

We invented a robot that can do a backflip! A battery that can run on human stomach acid! And closer to some of our hearts, a drip-free wine bottle! As a matter of fact, a lot of pretty incredible things happened in between the soul-crushing world events. Pandas and manatees are no longer endangered! New breakthroughs in human-pig embryos (no longer limited to B-list sci fi) mean organ transplant waiting lists could become a thing of the past. And thanks to a worldwide reduction in CFCs and aerosols, even the hole in the ozone layer is starting to heal itself.! Here are some of the positives from the world of science in 2017, just to show you that humanity’s not (entirely) going backwards.

Health and Medicine

 Health wise, humans are a lot better off with the last year’s research. Inventions like newborn-safe MRI machines and an artificial womb that successfully sustained premature lambs for 4 weeks, will safeguard our smallest strugglers. The newly patented SkinGun can spray burn wounds with stem cells, growing new skin in just 4 days! Even a cure for cancer could be in the cards, with personalised CAR T-cell immunotherapy being FDA approved for testing, and two baby girls confirmed to be leukemia-free, 12 and 18 months after a novel genetically engineered white blood cell treatment!

For the millions of HIV positive people worldwide there was a double-whammy of hope: A new type of antibody was developed that could possibly fight 99% of HIV strains, and other researchers discovered a ‘functional cure’ which draws the virus down to levels so low that it can’t be transmitted to another person. It was a doubly good year for blood as well, with gene therapy trials making promising headway into a possible cure for Hemophilia, and Komodo dragon’s blood looking like the future cure for bacterial superbug antibiotic resistance!

Magical and mysterious, the komodo dragon has a dense biodiversity of bacteria populations, living innocuously in its mouth. Researchers found the antimicrobial compounds which allowed both microbe and monster lizard to coexist, created synthetic versions and placed them in a petri-dish fight to the death with two superbugs, including MRSA, where the synthetic peptides removed all trace of the bugs.

Biological Sciences

The Life Sciences have been living it up the past year, with 381 new species confirmed discovered in the Amazon rainforest alone; a new species of Sumatran Orang-Utan; and a new therapy in the Netherlands reversed the effects aging in mice! In neurology we saw a cybernetic brain implant that allowed a paralysed man to move his fingers for the first time in six years, and a study that revealed why people are born left or right handed. This handy research found that asymmetry forms in early development of spinal nerves, most likely caused by prenatal environmental factors instead of genetics, as was previously thought.

Incredibly (and controversially), scientists successfully edited a human embryo, using CRISPR technology to genetically “delete” a heart-disease gene from the single-cell embryo. This is the first research to conclusively demonstrate that genes linked to inherited diseases can be efficiently, and safely, corrected! On the wackier side of life a spinach leaf was transformed into beating human heart tissue, we named a sonic-boom punching pistol shrimp after a rock band (Synalpheus pinkfloydi), and mosquitoes may be on their way to losing their title as deadliest animal family in the world, as malaria rates have dropped 60% since 2000!

Physics and Outer Space

It has been a massively impressive year for physics, both closer to home and (incredibly) far away. In just one analysis the Large Hadron Collider revealed the existence of 5 new particles! A new metallic state of hydrogen that’s never existed on earth before was created! And astronomers witnessed a neutron star merger for the first time ever!

The collision of the two stars lasted over 100 seconds and showed that gamma-ray bursts, the heaviest elements in the universe (like platinum and gold), and maybe even black holes, could all be the result of these kinds of phenomena! Nearer to our galactic neck of the woods, our solar system had it’sits first recorded interstellar visitor, with star-gazers around the world racing to study the football-field-sized spinning object, before it spun back out of our system.

Jupiter was visited by Juno, a probe sent to investigate the moons, magnetic fields and huge red “storm” of the gas giant. The Cassini probe, which orbited Saturn for 13 years continually sending back invaluable photos and data, took it’s final, preordained, plunge into the clouds. In similar space news, NASA has started using reusable booster rockets, saving approximately $18 million each time they successfully land a booster, rather than letting it follow its predecessors into the ocean.

Archaeology and Earth Sciences

The planet was rocked by so many underground discoveries this year: Human remains were found in Morocco that are 100,000 years older than any others found before! We detected a giant mysterious cavern inside of the great pyramids of Giza using subatomic cosmic particles! And a 99-million-year-old baby bird was found fossilised in amber, proving that there were feathered birds long before the dinosaurs went extinct!

In Antarctica, the oldest ever ice core was drilled, in remote parts of Brazil scientists with drones found new ‘Stonehenge-like’ monuments, and oh yeah there’s probably an 8th continent: Zealandia! Research suggests that New Zealand isn’t just an island chain, but the remains of a 4.9 million-square-kilometer block of continental crust that’s mostly submerged, east of Australia!. Fossils found suggest that millions of years ago this massive landscape was likely covered in all sorts of novel plants and animals, thriving above sea-level before it’s Atlantis-esque descent into the waves.

So, it’s not all doom and gloom coming out of 2017, at least not for science, and there’s plenty of things to look forward to as well! Europe’s first mission to Mercury is launching, China is putting a satellite in lunar orbit, and the most powerful rocket operating on the planet, the Falcon Heavy Rocket, will blast off! It’s only January and we’ve cloned monkeys, created “muscular” cell-sized robots, and unveiled the first bionic hand with a sense of touch possible to wear outside a laboratory! Last year we had the world’s first ‘completely unhackable’ quantum video call, and huge leaps in quantum computing like the 51-qubit computer, so imagine where we could be this time next year. I’m sure we’ll have so much to talk about!

Aisling Brennan – Science Writer

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