The best scientific discoveries of last year?

2017 Will go down in history as the year of the Grenfell Tower fire, Brexit negotiations, and the early days of the Trump presidency. But it was not all doom and gloom. In the world of science, there have been some truly amazing discoveries that could change the world for the better. Here are five of the greatest and scientific discoveries of 2017.

Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have developed artificial wombs which could drastically improve survival rates for prematurely born babies and reduce complications that they suffer from later in life. In April, ‘biobags’ were used for lambs born at the human equivalent of 23 weeks early. The lambs were kept in the bags for four weeks and appeared to develop normally. The survival rate for babies born this prematurely is just 15 percent and 46 percent of children born before 26 weeks show serious cognitive impairments at the age of 11. It is hoped that in the coming years biobags will help critically premature human babies to survive and develop healthily.

A VERITAS sensor similar to the one used to detect the existence of TRAPPIST-1 Image: E.Bourbeau

In February, NASA announced the possibility that there could be alien life on the planets surrounding TRAPPIST-1 – an ultra-cool red dwarf star orbited by seven planets. These planets are located in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ which is neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right for life to develop. As the solar system is only 39 light years from Earth, it is possible for astronomers to study it and to conduct searches to see if there are signs of life. A major indicator of life is water; three of the planets that orbit TRAPPIST-1 have the potential for large-scale bodies of water. These bodies of water are required for life to grow and develop, therefore it is possible that alien life will be discovered at these sites.

In recent years, cancer research has begun to seek to use immunology to treat various forms of cancer. Immunological approaches use the patient’s immune system to attack cancerous cells and tumours. Until now, these treatments have only been in the development stage, however, 2017 has seen the FDA approve not one, but two of these groundbreaking new treatments. One is used to treat children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (a form of blood cancer) and the other treats adults with advanced lymphomas (cancer of the lymph nodes). Although this type of cancer therapy is very new, researchers and patients alike are excited to see the results of this potentially revolutionary form of treatment and how it could perhaps help find new cures to other forms of cancer.

Another exciting moment in the field of biology this year came when scientists at MIT managed to develop a battery powered by stomach acid, which could be used to deliver drugs. Ingestible electronic devices are an important substitute for invasive procedures in drug delivery. However, powering these batteries can prove to be a problem. These new batteries are formed from two electrodes (one made of zinc and one of copper), a temperature sensor and a 900 MHz transmitter. Once inside the body, stomach acid transfers electric current from the zinc to the copper electrode. So far these batteries have shown promising signs in trials using pigs but it remains to be seen whether they will be equally effective if they were used in human stomachs.

A specimen of Synalpheus Pinkfloydi Image: Oxford University Museum of Natural History

In April, a new species of shrimp has been discovered off the coast of Panama. This seemingly harmless crustacean can stun or kill fish by rapidly snapping shut its large, pink claw. It can produce sound up to 210 decibels in volume. Dr Sammy DeGrave of Oxford  University named the shrimp Synalpheus Pinkfloydi after Pink Floyd. The name is a reference to its pink claw because of the line “By the way, which one of you is pink?” in the song ‘Have A Cigar’ from the band’s album “Wish You Were Here.

A team led by Floyd Romesburg at California’s Scripps Research Institute created an unnatural pair of genetic bases. While those typically incorporated into DNA are known as C, T, A and G, the group named their newly created pair X and Y. After incorporating the bases into a living E. coli bacteria, it was shown that the organism still functioned seamlessly.

Many of the discoveries here may change the way we think about the world around us, potentially answering some of Man’s philosophical questions, or maybe changing how we approach different areas of science. Hopefully, the experimental discoveries listed in this article will become widely accepted. With any luck, 2018 will be a year of equally as many findings.