Year in review 2015: Action-packed advances in science
When it comes to advances in science, this year has been action-packed. From finding evidence of water on Mars, to editing the human genome, scientific achievements have never been far from the headlines. Here’s a roundup of vital discoveries, stories and breakthroughs that made an impact in 2015:
Mission to Mars
In September, scientists working on Nasa’s Mars exploration programme announced that they had found evidence of liquid water flowing on the surface of the red planet. Lead scientist Michael Meyer said that the discovery meant that Mars may someday be habitable. The water runs down canyons and crater walls over the summer months – although scientists are as yet unsure where it comes from.
The world’s most extensive face transplant was carried out in August. Surgeons at New York University’s Langone Medical Centre announced in November that the 26 hour procedure, performed on retired firefighter Patrick Hardison, 41, was a success. More than 100 people worked to give Hardison, severely burnt in 2001 when a roof collapsed on him, a new scalp and face – including ears, nose, lips and eyelids – from 26-year-old David Rodebaugh, who was pronounced brain-dead after a cycling accident. Now Hardison can blink and sleep with his eyes closed.
And baby makes four
In a landmark decision, the UK became the first country to approve the creation of babies from three people, using a modified form of IVF. The procedure will prevent babies inheriting many incurable genetic diseases. A small amount of DNA in a mother’s egg is replaced with healthy DNA from a second woman, giving the baby genes from two mothers and one father.
Cut and paste
Genome editing using a technique called Crispr-Cas9, which cuts out faulty DNA and replaces it with healthy genetic material, has been around since 2012, but this year, a team at Sun Yat-sen University in China showed that DNA errors could be modified in early-stage human embryos. Meanwhile, Harvard geneticist George Church has used the procedure to insert woolly mammoth genes into the cells of an Asian elephant. Editing human embryos is controversial – the US won’t fund research in this area. But the beneficial potential for gene editing is vast – from treating inherited diseases, to fighting infections such as HIV and increasing crop yields for food. As well as, possibly, bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction.
Antibiotic resistance is fast becoming an alarming public-health crisis – so the news that the first new antibiotic for nearly 30 years has been discovered was a coup for Professor Kim Lewis and his colleagues at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Antibiotics derive from chemical toxins found naturally in soil microbes – but frustratingly, many will not grow under laboratory conditions. The team used an electronic chip to grow microbes in soil and then isolated their antibiotic chemical compounds – a technique that paves the way for further discoveries. The drug, teixobactin, works in a unique way unlikely to lead to resistance, and can be used to treat many life-threatening infections including MRSA, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Human trials could begin within two years.
‘Impressive results’ in HIV fight
Work towards the treatment of HIV came on in leaps and bounds this year, thanks to studies that showed that infusing HIV antibodies into a person’s blood reduced the level of the virus. It’s early days, but the approach, called passive immunisation, showed “ impressive results”, said Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland. Separately, Danish scientists at Aarhus University successfully used an anti-cancer drug, romidepsin, to activate HIV lying dormant in the cells of patients taking anti-HIV drugs – this exposes the virus to the immune system and makes it susceptible to attack.
We are truly entering the age of the robot. This year, advances in artificial intelligence gave us a Google chatbot with the ability to learn languages and have conversations, and its Boston Dynamics division continued to hone its Atlas humanoid robot – footage of Atlas hiking through the woods in a remarkably anthropomorphous manner was released in August. And human-robot hybrids are no longer the stuff of science fiction. In 2012, bio-engineers at Harvard created cyborg tissue: neurons, heart cells, muscle and blood vessels interwoven by nanowire and transistors. Now, they have developed a method of injecting this tissue, in the form of a tiny electronic device, directly into the brain, or elsewhere in the body. This technique could be used to treat everything from neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s to paralysis. Professor Charles Lieber, leading an international team of researchers, said he thought the work had the potential to be “revolutionary”.
Particle puzzle prize
Neutrinos are the second most prolific particle in the universe, after light photons – and yet they are one of the most fundamentally misunderstood. Many were created during the Big Bang, and many billions of them pass through us every day – not that we’d ever know it. This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, Takaaki Kajita from the University of Tokyo and Arthur McDonald from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, were recognised for work showing that neutrinos, which have no electric charge, have mass. This discovery flipped the Standard Model of particle physics on its head, and could prove crucial to scientists’ views on the nature of the universe.
Fay Schopen is a freelance journalist who also writes for The Sunday Times, The Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free and The Telegraph.