Closing remarks on 2017

Throughout the whole end of December and beginning of January people tend to judge the past year, draw lines and plot plans for the next year. It’s this buzzing with expectation time of the year, when you are still hopeful about life, the universe and everything, but too tired to monetize on your feeble motivation. 😀

Instead of making resolutions and tallying what I did in 2017 vs what I couldn’t, I decided to write an article about some of the most interesting discoveries we got wind of in 2017.
Granted, most of these things were discovered in a lab by someone, probably a year or even two before that because this is how the scientific process works – when someone makes an observation, they put it up for testing, potentially giving heads up to people around the world to test in their labs, and if the observation holds water to that, it passes through the excruciating process of publishing it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
This publishing step alone takes easily a year – sometimes less, sometimes even more. Once a publication is out there, scientific establishments, journalists, bloggers jump on it to cover for the general non-specialist reader. There’s absolutely no rule on how long it might take for a research finding to get picked up by a journalist – it might be year(s) unless a press release has been made by the host institute.

You should be warned, that the article I got to publish in one of the biggest Bulgarian newspapers (Bulgaria is where I come from) entitled Най-важните и интересни научни открития на 2017 (Most important and interesting scientific discoveries of 2017) is somewhat flawed from the fact that we (the people who did not do the research that made the headlines in 2017) do not know the exact time at which any of the described discoveries have been made. But this is the reality we live in and I’m more than happy of cutting myself some slack. Bellow, you can read a summary of some of the topics I covered in the original article linked above.

1 AWAY FROM HOME
The past year was tagged by discoveries of potentially habitable planets around a bunch of stars near and far. The Trappist 1 system is the current record holder for a planetary system with the biggest number of planets we’ve ever observed outside our own. Additionally, with the help of AI, data from the NASA’s Kepler was reanalyses and additional 10 planets in the habitable zone around their stars were found and potentially much more remain to be detected in the remaining data. 

Image: NASA

While none of the found planets is at a manageable distance with any space flight tech we currently have, it’s nice to know what someone else might have already been calling these planets home.

Next to dreaming of new homes away from home, 2017 scientists gave us knowledge of our own planet. The detection by LIGO and Virgo of the two neutron stars colliding was not only absolutely spectacular, but also very valuable. For the first time we received absolute irrefutable proof of how some chemical elements heavier than iron formed in our universe (think precious metals for example).

2 DOWN TO EARTH

While some were busy looking beyond our atmosphere, others were busy studying our own planet, and how to help the survival of a species which is about to cause its own exctinction.

Despite difficulties to keep getting climate change research funded in some countries in the world, scientists found ways to keep going. 2017 saw a prototype of an installation developed, which is able to pull water out of thin and dry air using only solar power. It has been shown that several conflicts around the globe already have been worsened due to shortage of fresh water – it is only a question of time until they start being caused by it entirely. Such technology could help provide fresh safe water with little to none electricity input in regions where drought is already causing the loss of lives.

Other scientists were busy feeding the world in a more responsible way. As it had become clear, our heavily meat based diet is not environmentally sustainable. Thus, the reasonable thing to do before turning 100% vegan is to make sure we can actually provide sufficient high-quality nutrients for the whole of humanity. Micro-nutrients and vitamins are of great concern when shifting to vegetarian or vegan diet – plants just don’t make all the little molecules we need to live and be healthy (nor do animals alone for that matter). Hence, a new variety of maize made to produce the vital amino acid methionine is a step in the right direction. The issue with prohibiting GMOs in big parts of the world remains to be solved for this to become anything more than just a lovely lab experiment.

TAKING CARE OF OURSELVES

Humanity is selfish. One of the better manifestations of this selfishness is the fact that one of the biggest chunks of funding money for research goes for medical science. In 2017, some of the most exciting news were related to treatments involving gene therapy.

360 million people around the world suffer from various forms of hearing loss. With a new protocol published in Cell Reports, scientists are able to program stem cells to turn into the fine hair-like cells from the inner ear allowing for the development of new therapies for deafness and hearing loss. 

Scientists from Columbus, managed to engineer a virus and use it to fight a genetic mutation which damages neurons coordinating movements. The disease affects children born with this mutation and they rarely survive after their second year. This treatment however, has so far proven successful in reversing the damage to the neurons caused by the mutation. 

Picture Emaze

4 SCIENCE-MADE SUPER HUMANS

Scientists are usually dreamers, people who persistently work to create a better today and tirelessly dream of brighter tomorrow. As such, aside of the problems at hand, researchers try to solve problems which might not be our most urgent issues just yet, but prepare us for what’s to come in the future. 

One of the everlasting dreams of medical scientists is the Fountain of Youth. Or in more sober terms – the non-mythological possibility to prolong human life. Some development in this direction was provided in the USA by the team of Professor Eros Lazzerini Denchi. They found a way to regulate a protein, which binds to the ends of the chromosomes and regulates their length. It’s already been hypothesized that the length of the chromosomes (which is a trait very tightly regulated in most higher species) is one of the major players in ageing. The ability to influence the speed with which they are shortened would allow the prolongation of the life of the individual. 
At the same time across the ocean, in The Netherlands, another team had announced the successful testing  of a drug, which seemingly reversed the ageing process in mice.

Probably the most exciting announcement of 2017 was an artificial womb in which a neonatal team of physicians and scientists from Philadelphia sustained a lamb until its gestational age. Their goal was not to start growing babies in tubes and petri dishes, but to develop a system with the help of which prematurely born babies could be given a chance of survival higher than the measly 30% they have now. Additinally, even if a baby born before the critical 26 weeks survives, it usually has lasting incapacitation, despite using the best incubators available. This artificial womb might be just the thing these babies need to be given a good chance of survival and a good quality life!

While probably none of these discoveries happened in a single moment of revelation and a single shout “Eureka!” in the witching hours in a buzzing lab, they all deserve a congratulatory pat on the back, the occasional pop of a champagne bottle for encouragement for the job well done, and who knows – one day, may be even a Nobel prize. 2017 fascinated me with its discoveries, and I can only hold my breath in passionate anticipation to see what 2018 holds in store for us! 

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