Highlights: The past 12 months in science

Joanna Taylor 22 December 2016

In the UK and the United States turbulent results from elections and referenda have caused concerns for the scientific community this year. The EU referendum result lead to uncertainty about funding sources going forward – much of the current grant money needed to purchase research equipment and pay researchers’ salaries currently comes from the EU – not to mention numerous EU research collaborations that have now been jeopardised and may lead to UK research teams receiving lower priority within the group efforts.

The surprise Republican win in the US in November causes additional concerns as the incoming administration has voiced scepticism about climate science and may undermine the US’ commitments to the Paris treaty, which has previously been hailed a “historic turning point” in preventing disastrous climate change by France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius. In addition, the non-space exploration based branch of NASA has come under fire for its “politically-correct environmental monitoring”.

But instead of focusing on the many negatives of 2016, here are four scientific highlights from the last twelve months.

1) Gravitational Waves

In a triumphant result for Einstein’s theory of general relativity (and huge amounts of subsequent theoretical and experimental work) gravitational waves have finally been detected. When two galaxies collided between 600 million and 1.8 billion years ago, and 1.3 billion light-years (or 1.7 x 1022 km) away, they sent a ripple through space time (as predicted in 1918). This ripple was detected separately in two interferometers (devices which measure the difference in time light takes to travel paths whose length would be identical were it not for the passing ripple in space-time due to the gravitational wave), 3700 km away. One interferometer in Louisiana and another in Washington picked up the ripple in 2015, with the results announced in February of this year. This has huge implications for theoretical and experimental cosmology as it helps to justify the enormous investment made in these large interferometers, as well as helping to verify theoretical models for events such as the ones measured here.

2) CRISPR Gene Editing

“CRISPR everywhere” read the cover of Nature journal this March. CRISPR (often referred to as crisper or Cas9) is a technique used to introduce new, or remove old, segments of DNA from a cell’s genome, and also may be used to activate or deactivate certain genes. The has come into the spotlight recently as last year a team of biologists used the method to modify the genomes of human embryos. This news triggered controversy, and in December 2015 was discussed at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing which took place in Washington, and was co-hosted by the USA’s National Academy of Science and National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Science, and the UK’s Royal Society.

Broadly the summit advised that somatic cell edits (i.e. those that would not be passed on to any descendants) should be investigated further but advised caution in making alterations that might be passed on as this could be abused. Possible consequences include further social inequality or errors in the procedure being too difficult to remove from the human genome. This technique came into the news again in October 2016 when a team of Chinese scientists injected a patient with aggressive lung cancer with cells that had been altered with CRISPR.

3) Three Parent Babies

In September a team led by John Zhang at the New Hope Fertility Centre in New York claimed that they had successfully delivered a baby boy conceived using genetic material from three parents using mitochondrial replacement therapy, which the UK legalised in February 2015. This is a procedure in which the mitochondria of human egg cells are replaced with donor mitochondria. The reason this technique may be useful is that an estimated 1 in 5000 children are born with diseases caused by mitochondrial mutations. Such mutations present in the mother (men do not pass on mitochondrial DNA) may not exhibit symptoms, but when passed on to the child can cause conditions such as muscular dystrophies. Replacing the mitochondrion in the mother’s egg cell with a donor’s can avoid these mutations and would lead to a child with DNA from three parents. In addition, on 15 December the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority stated that it will permit “the use of mitochondrial donation in certain, specific cases”.

4) Google vs. Go

On 10 February 1996, Deep Blue, the supercomputer made by IBM, was the first computer to beat a reigning chess champion (Garry Kasparov) under regular time controls in a feat which has since been repeated several times. ‘Go’, however, continued to be one of the last games which humans claimed dominance over against machines, and was seen as one of the greatest hurdles to artificial intelligence. This barrier was overcome by Google’s subsidiary DeepMind’s program, AlphaGo, which defeated the reigning European Champion, Fan Hui, under tournament conditions five times in five games in January. Unlike DeepBlue, which was pre-programmed to be good at chess, AlphaGo was programmed to learn from examples of other Go games to develop its strategies. The technique, called deep neural networks, is based on the way that brains learn enable advances in image and speech recognition, and in this case allow a computer to beat us at our own game.