Science down the microscope: The top stories of 2016

From political upheavals, worldwide attacks and the death of such figures as David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood, scientists have weathered a turbulent year. Here, Nouse highlights the unexplained mysteries, oddities and discoveries and the people who made a difference to scientific progress in 2016.

Despite an eventful year, scientists have made some remarkable advances; the birth of a baby with DNA derived from three people, the direct detection of gravitational waves, and an artificial intelligence (AI) capable of cracking the code to a board game that humans haven’t quite mastered yet.

Gravitational waves detected

On February 11th, physicists declared the first gravitational waves (ripples in the structure of space-time) as directly detected. The signal, detected in September 2015 twin detectors of the Laser Interferom-

Image: wikimedia commons

Image: wikimedia commons

eter ­Gravitational-Wave Observatory(LIGO) in Louisiana and Washington state was derived from the merger of two black holes some 1 billion years prior to the outbreak. The findings provide evidence for both the existence of black holes and the general theory of relativity, both conducted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago. As Nouse reported earlier this year, (http://www.nouse.co.uk/2016/02/16/gravitational-waves-detected/) the equipment used in this research is really quite remarkable. Taking 25 years to perfect, the 4km strip of laser beam and a mirror, capable of detecting a distortion in space-time a thousandth the diameter of one atomic nucleus was waited upon for any noticeable fluctuations which would imply gravitational wave movement.

Zika spreads

Also in February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared birth defects that were linked to outbreaks of the Zika virus primarily in Brazil as a worldwide public health emergency. A particular defect, microcephaly, affects both foetuses and new born babies who suffer from abnormally small heads or brains. An outbrea

Image: Flickr. The virus is spread through a bite from an infected Aedes species mosquito.

Image: Flickr. The virus is spread through a bite from an infected Aedes species mosquito.

k of the virus circulated the Americas after been detected in Brazil last May, having previously been limited to South- East Asia and Africa. However, the expected rise in birth defect and microcephaly cases did not materialise, despite the increase in zika cases throughout the continents. Research in this area has now shifted to whether biological, socio-economic and environmental factors can describe the odd elevation rates.

Increased funding into mosquito control and research into the virus suggests those with authority were triggered at the initial warning by the WHO. ‘For me, this response also showed that the international community had learned important lessons from the Ebola crisis, and was determined to act more rapidly before the situation spiralled out of control’ Says Professor Pete Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

On the 18th November, the WHO declared the end of the public-health emergency and that the focus needs to be on the implications of Zika, birth defects and creating a vaccine. Current research should answer some unanswered questions in 2017.

CRISPR technology on the rise

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or ‘CRISPR’, is a relatively new innovation in genetic modification. In October, the genome editing tool was used on a patient with lung cancer at West China Hospital in Chengdu who became the first person to be treated with cells edited using CRISPR–Cas9. More cancer trials are expected in the United States and China throughout 2017.

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

 

Although CRISPR holds great potential for eradicating genetic conditions, it does highlight some cause for concern; potential ‘designer babies’ could be a product of this technique, with parents holding the power in deciding the physical features of their babies. The UK, Sweden and China have voiced their intentions for this practise as optimising its use in embryo and human development. Work in the US is expected to follow, despite a ban on the use of federal funds to study human embryos or to modify human gametes.

Portugal runs on renewable energy for four consecutive days

Between the 7th and the 11th May, Portugal hit a new milestone by running entirely on renewable energy. 107 hours were completed on solar, wind hydro-generated electricity alone. This zero emission landmark was spurred by the EU’s renewable targets for 2020. News of the clean energy milestone came just days after Germany had announced that clean energy had covered all of its electricity on 15th May, with energy prices turning negative throughout the day. “The age of inflexible and polluting technologies is drawing to an end and power will increasingly be provided from clean, renewable sources.” Says James Watson, the CEO of SolarPower Europe.

Portugal has set a tangible example to governments and energy companies of what can be achieved and how it can be done. Our climate is changing, and so now is the time to follow leading examples such as this in bettering the future for the earth.

Greenland shark listed as longest- living known vertebrate

Earlier this year, Nouse reported on the horrific act of shark finning, with a brief mention of the Greenland shark, an elusive species that lives in the deep, cold depths of the North Atlantic (http://www.nouse.co.uk/2016/09/08/suffering-in-silence-the-ignored-plight-of-sharks/). However, the incredible extent of their lifespan was unknown. A team looked at 28 individual Greenland sharks, most of which had died in fishing nets, caught as by-catch. The Greenland shark can grow to 5 metres, and has been named the longest living known vertebrate, with one female estimated at 400 years old. Loo-

king at the bigger picture, the unnecessary catching of sharks is an issue in itself that should be dealt with. However, this research has allowed some fascinating results; the sharks are known to grow just 1cm a year, and reach sexual maturity at the age of 150. The former longest living vertebrate was the bowhead whale at 211 years, but if invertebrates were involved, the 507 year old clam called Ming would claim the title.

 

What else?

An extensive list of scientific developments or concerns have held significance this year, with a selective few mentioned below:

  1.  Arctic and Antarctic sea ice volumes reach a record low.
  2. CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere reached a staggering 400 parts per million, a staggering increase from the 295 ppm recorded in 1896.
    Image: Flickr. Sir David Attenborough celebrated his 90th birthday in 2016.

    Image: Flickr. Sir David Attenborough celebrated his 90th birthday in 2016.

  3. Tim Peake, a British astronaut completed his six month space mission on the ISS http://www.nouse.co.uk/2016/11/11/tim-peake-visited-york-lets-talk-the-iss-education-and-stem/
  4. SpaceX made huge developments in creating a fully reusable spacecraft.
  5. In the world of politics, President Donald Trump pledged to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement, after claiming climate change is a hoax.
  6. Brexit caused some concern for the future for UK science (http://www.nouse.co.uk/2016/08/17/brexit-what-is-the-future-for-uk-science/)
  7. In January, the artificial intelligence, called AlphaGO beat a world-class player at the ancient game, Go. In October, another AI managed to navigate itself around the London Underground.
  8. The first healthy baby with DNA derived from three people was born, followed by another birth and two successful conceptions through the procedure.
  9. Planet Earth II blessed our TV screens in an attempt to educate those at home how incredible planet earth really is.

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