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11 of the biggest scientific milestones from 2016 that are worth celebrating

Planets are round, or nearly round, due to gravity

When it comes to scientific achievements, 2016 has certainly been one worth celebrating.

From the discovery of a new “Earth-like” planet and ground-breaking age-reversing techniques to a new three-parent baby treatment that can potentially stop inherited diseases from taking root, here are a few of the most important scientific milestones that could potentially change our future.

1. Discovery of the largest known prime number

Earlier this year, mathematicians discovered a new prime number through the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search – a collaborative project by volunteers from around the world.

The number 2^74,207,281 – 1 is the largest known number to date that is only divisible by one and itself and is almost five million digits longer than its predecessor.

For those who are wondering why mathematicians are obsessed with prime numbers, it’s because modern computer cryptography requires the use of prime factors of large numbers, which is why scientists are on the lookout for new ones.

2. Creation of eternal storage

There’s one fact of life we can’t ignore: everything degrades over time and data storage devices aren’t immune. Except for the one recently created by the University of Southampton.

Thanks to the new discovery, scientists have successfully used nano-structured glass that’s around the size of 10p to hold 360TB of data. More importantly, the device doesn’t get damaged even when exposed to 1,000C.

Researchers reckon the shelf life of this new 5D optical storage is unlimited (possibly over 13 billion years) – if stored at room temperature. That’s almost the same amount of time the universe has existed.

3. Turning carbon dioxide into stone

Scientist Sandra Snaebjornsdottir, from the University of Iceland, holding a drill core loaded with whitish deposits of carbonate which was made by injecting the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into basalt rock.
One of the researchers holding a rock which was made by injecting the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into basalt rock (Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

 

Carbon emissions and global warming may not be on the list of Donald Trump’s agenda as the new president of the US, but scientists and environmentalists are still concerned about how they affect our planet.

So when a team of British scientists found a way to rid the atmosphere of excess greenhouse gas by turning it into chalk, it was hailed as good news.

The technique was tested at the world’s largest geothermal power plant in Iceland where scientists injected water containing thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into deep wells sunk into volcanic basalt rock.

In less than two years, the gas reacted with calcium, iron and other minerals in the rock to form a whitish, chalky material.

4. A flower blooming in space for the first time

US astronaut Scott Kelly became the first person to grow a flower from seed on the International Space Station.

Two zinnia flowers made space history after they were chosen because scientists wanted to test how plants that are more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics performed in space.

Things didn’t go off to a good start at first when Nasa revealed that two of the plants died. But fortunately, the remaining two plants continued to thrive, and soon there were new shoots forming.

Scientists believe the success of zinnia could set the scene for another plant – tomato.

5. Discovery of evidence pointing to a new planet nine

If you are still shedding tears about Pluto being stripped of its planet status 10 years ago, maybe this will cheer you up.

CalTech researchers believe they may have found evidence of a hidden giant planet on the fringes of the solar system.

Uncovered using computer simulations, this mysterious world nicknamed Planet Nine is about 10 times more massive than the Earth. It is also about 20 times further from the sun than Neptune, which orbits at a distance of about 2.8 billion miles.

Its existence was inferred from the gravitational influence it has on several objects in the Kuiper Belt – a circumstellar disc in the solar system beyond the planets – with highly unusual orbits.

6. Go world champion being beaten by artificial intelligence

In a sign that artificial intelligence is on the path to greatness, Google’s AI program DeepMind beat Lee Sedol, one of the world’s best Go players, in four out of five games.

The highly anticipated showdown between human and machine crushed the pride of Go fans, many of them in Asia, who believed Go would be too complex for machines to master.

The AI program established its superiority in an ancient Chinese game long thought to be the realm of humans. We just hope this isn’t the beginning of the end of humanity.

7. World’s first three-parent baby being born

How mitochondrial donations work

Fertility doctors used a controversial gene-editing technique developed to help a woman deliver the world’s first baby with three genetic parents.

Abrahim Hassan was conceived from an egg containing nuclear DNA from his mother and father and mitochondrial DNA from a “second mother” who is an unknown female donor.

His mother was treated by a US team in Mexico. The aim was to replace defective mitochondrial DNA that would have condemned Abrahim to Leigh syndrome, a fatal disorder affecting the developing nervous system.

A few months after Abrahim was born, the UK became the first country to legally offer three-parent baby treatment to prevent inherited diseases.

8. Quadriplegic man using his brain to control robotic arm

Nathan Copeland.
Nathan Copeland using his mind to move a robotic arm (University of Pittsburgh)

 

For the first time in medical history, a paralysed man was able to feel again, thanks to a chip implanted in his brain that helped him control a robotic arm.

Nathan Copeland has been a quadriplegic after a crash led to a spinal cord injury that resulted in loss of use of all four limbs and torso. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center implanted a series of chips directly into Copeland’s brain that would allow him to feel with a robotic arm.

The electrodes in the chips inside the brain allowed Copeland to send signals to a computer and then to a robotic arm just by thinking about it. With training Copeland was able to pick up objects and use the prosthetic fingers.

9. Researchers announcing plan to map every single cell in the human body

DNA illustration (ClaudioVentrella/Thinkstock)
Scientists want to map every single cell in the human body (ClaudioVentrella/Thinkstock)

 

In October 2016, scientists announced plans for a global-scale project to sequence the human genome by mapping every single cell in the human body.

The aim of the Human Cell Atlas project – dubbed Google Maps for the human body – is for future generations of researchers, clinicians and drug developers to use the atlas as an invaluable guide to the complex way cells function and interact via a host of signalling pathways, many of which are still not understood.

The plan is to chart the type and properties of 35 trillion cells across the whole range of tissues and organs.

10. Discovery of a new “Earth like” planet Proxima b

Proxima Centauri planet.
Astronomers detected Proxima b early this year (M Kornmess/ESO)

 

In August 2016, astronomers announced they detected Proxima b – an exoplanet only four light years away from us and probably the most “Earth-like” world scientists have discovered to date.

Researchers found the planet using a special instrument on the telescope operated by the ESO at La Silla in Chile’s Atacama desert.

With the help of the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, scientists were able to measure a tiny “wobble” in the star’s position caused by its interaction with Proxima b’s gravity – a method known as Doppler spectroscopy.

Although scientists could not see the planet themselves, they say this “wobble” confirms the existence of Proxima b.

11. Development of a new age reversing technique

Mitochondria DNA.
Researchers found a way to remove mutated DNA from the mitochondria (NIH/Flickr)

 

Researchers from Caltech and UCLA developed a ground-breaking new technique to remove mutated DNA from mitochondria, which they say could help slow or reverse the ageing process.

The team found a way to manipulate genes so they could break down and remove mutated DNA, regenerating the cells.

Scientists tested their methods on fruit flies but hope that the technique could help “remove damaged mtDNA from the brain, muscle, and other tissues” from humans in the future.

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