The 15 Biggest And Best Science Stories Of 2016

2017-01-07 03:44:57

Credit: Jacqueline Mitchell, Tufts University

Credit: Jacqueline Mitchell, Tufts University

We here at Science write and edit hundreds of stories every year for our online science magazine. We think they’re all great, but some rise above the pack—either because tons of our readers like them. Here we have listed 15 biggest and best science stories of 2016. From Gravitational waves to Zika virus and Alzheimer’s Drug, these were the science stories that shaped 2016

1.  Gravitational waves, Einstein's ripples in spacetime, spotted for first time

Long ago, deep in space, two massive black holes—the ultrastrong gravitational fields left behind by gigantic stars that collapsed to infinitesimal points—slowly drew together. The stellar ghosts spiraled ever closer, until, about 1.3 billion years ago, they whirled about each other at half the speed of light and finally merged. The collision sent a shudder through the universe: ripples in the fabric of space and time called gravitational waves. And, for the first time, physicists detected the waves, fulfilling a 4-decade quest and opening new eyes on the heavens.

2.  Human Gene Editing

As the prospect of humans who have been genetically cut and pasted moves closer to reality, governments have begun to take notice of the need for regulation. The gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas 9 has the potential to help scientists develop treatments for diseases. Investors are pouring money into companies developing CRISPR applications, even amid legal battles over who owns the intellectual property. Scientists are also developing CRISPR alternatives. There will likely be ongoing debates over who should have access to the the technology and which genes can be safely tweaked.

3.  Artificial Intelligence

An artificial intelligence made by Google subsidiary DeepMind can now beat humans at the ancient game of Go. AlphaGo took on Go grandmaster Lee Sedol in March and won a five game series 4-1. The victory sent shockwaves through both the AI and Go communities as both had thought the game was too difficult for an AI to perfect.

4.  The world's first baby born through a controversial new "three parent" technique is reported

The world’s first baby to be born from a new procedure that combines the DNA of three people appears to be healthy, according to doctors in the US who oversaw the treatment. The baby was born on 6 April after his Jordanian parents travelled to Mexico where they were cared for by US fertility specialists.

5.  Zika virus

The threat to unborn babies wasn’t clear when Zika first hit Brazil, or in earlier, smaller outbreaks on Yap Island in the western Pacific and in French Polynesia. In fact, before 2016, not much was known about the virus at all. The majority of people infected don’t show any symptoms.  The virus, which has been linked to birth defects like microcephaly, can be transmitted by mosquitoes or through sex. As it spread across the Americas and into parts of Asia, scientists doubled down on efforts to understand its genetics and to devise ways to stem its spread, including eradicating mosquitoes and developing vaccines. In November, the World Health Organization said the virus wasn’t a global health emergency anymore.

6.  For first time, scientists grow two-week-old human embryos in lab

Scientists have for the first time grown human embryos outside of the mother for almost two full weeks into development, giving unique insight into what they say is the most mysterious stage of early human life. Scientists had previously only been able to study human embryos as a culture in a lab dish until the seventh day of development when they had to implant them into the mother's uterus to survive and develop further. But using a culture method previously tested to grow mouse embryos outside of a mother, the teams were able to conduct almost hour by hour observations of human embryo development to see how they develop and organize themselves up to day 13.

7. Biologists have just created a new species of bacteria

A team of scientists led by renowned biologist Craig Venter has made a breakthrough some 20 years in the making: they've managed to create a species of bacteria in the lab with a genetic code that's smaller than any found in nature. With just 437 genes, the lab-made organism is carrying the absolute known minimum amount of genetic code required to support life.

8. Human DNA from 400,000 years ago yields oldest gene

The finding suggests that the Denisovans’ split from the Neanderthals may have occurred between 170,000 and 700,000 years ago. The oldest human DNA ever found, from a 400,000-year-old thigh bone in Spain, may lead scientists to revise mankind’s family tree. The finding suggests that the Denisovans’ split from the Neanderthals may have occurred between 170,000 and 700,000 years ago, the scientists said.

9. The Ozone Hole Is Finally Healing

The ozone hole was first discovered using ground-based data that began in the 1950s. Around the mid-1980s, scientists from the British Antarctic survey noticed that the October total ozone was dropping. From then on, scientists worldwide typically tracked ozone depletion using October measurements of Antarctic ozone. Ozone is sensitive not just to chlorine, but also to temperature and sunlight. Chlorine eats away at ozone, but only if light is present and if the atmosphere is cold enough to create polar stratospheric clouds on which chlorine chemistry can occur — a relationship that Solomon was first to characterize in 1986. Measurements have shown that ozone depletion starts each year in late August, as Antarctica emerges from its dark winter, and the hole is fully formed by early October. Solomon and her colleagues believed they would get a clearer picture of chlorine’s effects by looking earlier in the year, at ozone levels in September, when cold winter temperatures still prevail and the ozone hole is opening up. The team showed that as the chlorine has decreased, the rate at which the hole opens up in September has slowed down. 

10. A Ninth Planet Was Discovered In The Solar System

In January, two astronomers announced that a planet around 10 times the mass of Earth might be lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system, on an orbit that comes no closer than 200 times the distance between the sun and Earth. Planet Nine, as it was dubbed, hasn’t been seen directly, but its presence was inferred from the strange orbits of smaller bodies orbiting within the Kuiper belt.

11.   New Prime Number Discovered

The largest known prime number has been discovered by a computer at a university in Missouri in the US. The new prime number is 2^74,207,281 – 1. Prime numbers - such as two, three, five and seven - are divisible only by themselves and one, and play an important role in computer encryption. The new prime is more than 22 million digits long, five million longer than the previous largest known prime. Primes this large could prove useful to computing in the future.

12. The discovery of new hormone asprosin 

Asprosin is a newly discovered hormone that is released by adipose tissue, traffics to the liver and stimulates that organ to release glucose into the blood stream. When antibodies targeting asprosin are injected into diabetic mice, blood glucose and insulin levels improve, thereby treating the underlying diabetes.

13.  Scientists turn CO2 into rock 

Scientists have turned carbon dioxide into stone in a matter of months by pumping it deep underground, offering a revolutionary new way of storing the greenhouse gas to tackle climate change. The pioneering experiment in Iceland mixed CO emissions with water and pumped it hundreds of metres underground into volcanic basalt rock — where it rapidly turned into a solid.

14.  Alzheimer’s Drug Fails in Large Trial

An experimental Alzheimer’s drug that had previously appeared to show promise in slowing the deterioration of thinking and memory has failed in a large Eli Lilly clinical trial, dealing a significant disappointment to patients hoping for a treatment that would alleviate their symptoms. Another drug developed by TauRx Pharmaceuticals Ltd., targeting a different Alzheimer’s related protein called tau, also failed earlier this year.

15. Earth Has A Second Moon

NASA scientists discovered an asteroid that has been captured and is in stable Earth orbit, making it a constant near-Earth companion, or a second satellite. There are a lot of objects orbiting this planet—space stations, man-made satellites, and lots and lots of junk—but only one moon that we can see. Now, NASA has confirmed the existence of 2016 HO3.