12 of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2017 that might just change the world
When it comes to scientific achievements, 2017 certainly left its mark.
From the use of ground-breaking gene-editing techniques that can potentially stop inherited diseases from taking root, to the creation of an artificial womb, here are a few of last year’s most important scientific milestones that could potentially change our future.
1. Editing genes to treat inherited diseases
Gene-editing technology has been in existence for a few years now, but in 2017 scientists achieved a significant breakthrough when they fixed a mutation responsible for congenital heart disease.
Taking advantage of the revolutionary tool called CRISPR-Cas9, a gene linked to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (a type of heart failure) was successfully “deleted” from a human embryo so they were no longer programmed to inherit the disease.
While a significant amount of research has to be done before the technique is shown to be safe and effective enough to be used clinically, the breakthrough could potentially prevent thousands of diseases being passed onto subsequent generations.
Also, altering nuclear DNA in a developing embryo is currently illegal so a change in the law would be needed before such treatments can be considered, and this would involve addressing some profound ethical questions.
2. Observing the collision of neutron stars
For the first time, we have confirmed evidence that precious metals on Earth, such as gold and platinum, may have originated in the stars.
Scientists confirmed this after detecting a titanic collision of two super-dense neutron stars 130 million light years from Earth.
Huge quantities of precious metal and other heavy elements including platinum and uranium were created in the nuclear furnace lit by the merging stars, backing all the theories about their origins and opening a new frontier in astronomy.
Scientists analysing chemical fingerprints from the radiation produced by the explosion calculated the mass of gold to be greater than the whole of the Earth.
3. Filtering sea water with graphene
Making sea water drinkable in a way that’s easy and cheap could help with the water crisis that affects millions from developing countries.
Bearing this in mind, scientists designed a sieve made using graphene oxide that transforms sea water into drinking water.
The sieve filters out salts from water to make it safe to drink, while avoiding swelling of the membrane when exposed to water.
Graphene-oxide membranes are said to be cheaper to create in the lab. This makes the technology more affordable, meaning the system could be used in desalination processes on a mass scale.
4. Discovering worms can eat a lot of plastic
Moths have been found to eat plastic and it could help with the man-made problem of plastic pollution.
The larvae of the greater wax moth normally thrive on beeswax, making them a hated enemy of bee keepers across Europe, but a chance discovery showed that they will also happily munch on plastic.
Tests involving 100 wax worms let loose on a plastic bag showed that over a period of 12 hours, 92mg of plastic was consumed.
Researchers are now looking to investigate the mechanism that allows the larvae to digest the plastic – in hope that they can replicate the chemical process on a large scale.
5. Creation of a human-pig embryo
In what sounds like something straight out of Frankenstein, researchers, for the first time, created embryos that were part human-part animal using cells from humans and pigs.
Scientists did this by injecting human stem cells into early-stage pig embryos. These hybrids were then put into surrogate sows, and 186 of the 2,075 embryos developed into chimeras (beings that contain DNA from two or more organisms).
These embryos were developed for 28 days (the length of the first trimester of a pig pregnancy) before they were removed.
Although this has been a subject of heated debate and sparked ethical concerns, the hope is that the process could one day help scientists grow human organs inside animals for later transplant.
6. Existence of a new state of matter called time crystals
It may feel like something from Star Trek, but a fourth state of matter exists and it has been created by two independent groups of scientists in their laboratories.
They are called time crystals and are a phase (like solid, liquid or gas) where the atoms repeat through time instead of space.
The concept was first speculated in 2012 by MIT physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek but many physicists were sceptical because it defied the laws of physics.
As the atoms in the time crystals loop forever, with no need for extra energy, the hope is that they could one day be used to develop quantum computers.
7. Curing haemophilia A with gene therapy
A cure for haemophilia A is one step closer after British doctors performed a new form of gene therapy to treat the genetic defect which leads to constant bleeding.
Sufferers of the hereditary condition, which mainly affects men, do not have the protein factor VIII which is needed for blood to clot.
The trial, led by Barts Health NHS Trust, saw 13 patients injected with a copy of the missing gene.
Progress over 19 months revealed all patients were able to stop regular treatment for the condition and 11 had almost normal levels of the missing protein factor.
The team plans to hold further tests to include people in Europe, US, Africa and South America.
8. Detection of a new exoplanet using artificial intelligence
In December 2017, Nasa astronomers revealed there was a new planet orbiting in the star system known as Kepler-90, which is 2,445 light-years away from Earth.
The discovery of the eighth planet – Kepler 90i – was made by Google’s artificial intelligence system, which analysed archived data from the Kepler Space Telescope.
The findings raise hope that AI systems can be trained to detect new space objects that astronomers are unable to spot themselves.
Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomer at the University of Texas, said: “Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can’t search it for themselves.”
9. Creation of an artificial womb
In what could be a huge breakthrough in treating premature babies, scientists successfully built an artificial womb that was able to keep premature lambs alive and developing normally.
The device, which contains a plastic bag filled with artificial nutrient-rich amniotic fluid, was tested on foetal lambs equivalent in age to 23-week-old human infants.
Scientists believe the faux womb could be ready for human trials in three to five years but add that the system will not be used as a replacement to human pregnancy.
10. Evidence of a hidden continent called Zealandia
Zealandia may sound more like a new Pixar movie than a huge land mass but scientists are convinced they have uncovered a new continent.
The discovery itself isn’t new – geologists have been arguing for its existence for many years – but in 2017, a team of scientists concluded Zealandia fulfils all the requirements to be considered a drowned eighth continent.
The researchers think it is a continent because of its other features – like the fact that it is elevated, it has its own specific geology, and also, the fact that it has got specific boundaries and a crust thicker than the ocean floor.
However, there is no scientific body that formally recognises continents, so it remains to be seen whether Zealandia will appear in future geography textbooks.
11. Conversion of CO2 into baking powder
Carbon emissions and global warming have been a concern among environmentalists in the last few decades but an industrial plant in India found a way to make something pretty useful from the CO2 it creates.
Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals, a fertiliser manufacturing company in Tamil Nadu, is using CO2 from its own boiler to make baking powder.
The process, believed to be a world first, involves capturing CO2 and other pollutants from coal and feeding it into a mixing chamber with salt and ammonia, creating baking soda in the process.
The firm is expecting to convert some 60,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions into baking soda and other chemicals every year.
12. Google’s DeepMind AI teaching itself how to walk
The year 2017 brought many breakthroughs in artificial intelligence – from AI systems being able to detect individuals with depression by scanning Instagram photos, to helping predict which embryos will result in IVF success – but the one that stands out comes from Google’s DeepMind.
The tech giant’s artificial intelligence subsidiary created an avatar that taught itself how to run and jump, without any human help.
While this may not sound as impressive as machine-learning technology in self-driving cars, the fact that the bot taught itself to navigate complex virtual environments while learning new ways to move (much like a human baby learning to walk and talk) is a glimpse into the future of the autonomous AI movement and integration of AI into society.
The technology lays the groundwork for an era of seamless robot-human interaction in the future.