2016 was a fantastic year for scientific discovery and achievement. Taking a look back at the biggest scientific achievements over the last 12 months, you’ll find work in the fields of genetics, evolution and natural history, computer technology, materials science, energy research, physics, space science, and climate change represented. We couldn’t cover everything, so we’ve focused on the 10 discoveries that are most likely to be regarded as milestones when looked back upon from the future. Let’s get into it!
The field of genetics remains on the cutting-edge of scientific achievements and discoveries since, by its nature, it’s one of the relatively new kids on the block. And while the very word “genetics” often conjures up images of mad scientists gone rogue (thanks to the influence of certain science-fiction properties), the science itself is actually catching up with some sci-fi predictions. Case in point: this story of the birth of a baby boy with three genetically unique parents, achieved through the intervention of scientists and medical professionals.
The eye-catching headline may sound like click-bait, but it’s actually an accurate description of the procedure. A woman carrying the mitochondrial genes for Leigh syndrome—a deadly disease affecting an infant’s central nervous system, and one that had claimed two of her previous children—wanted to conceive a child with her husband without either dooming their offspring or risking the chance that the child would pass on the defect to another generation. The procedure combined the nucleus of the mother’s egg cell with the denucleated egg cell of a donor (complete with healthy mitochondrial DNA), and then fertilized the egg with the father’s sperm. Voila! A healthy baby boy was born. The doctors’ continued study shows that 1% of his mitochondrial DNA is affected, though it presumably takes 18% to cause deleterious effects.
You and I have roughly 37 trillion things in common; that’s the number of cells in a human body, give or take a few. Yet, as evolutionary theory holds, all the multicellular marvels of the world, extant and extinct, began with a single-celled organism billions of years ago. For billions of years on Earth, only single-celled organisms existed. So what triggered the jump to multicellular life? As this 2016 publication from a team of researchers proposes, there was a solitary genetic mutation in the genes for an ancient cellular mechanism that allowed cell replication to occur.
Basically, a DNA-building enzyme in ancient single-celled organisms duplicated and changed due to this mutation and, roughly 800 million years ago, a new protein complex evolved that gave rise to multicellular life. This mechanism isn’t just a pen-and-paper hypothesis, it’s one the researchers recreated in the lab by resurrecting ancient enzymes and the mutations needed to enact the change. It’s discoveries like these that fill in the gaps in evolutionary history and strengthen our understanding of the theory and of life itself as we know it.
Speaking of life as we know it, in light of new evidence and discoveries that seem to occur every week or so, 2016 saw the publication of a new tree of life after a study in the journal Nature Microbiology. Thanks to DNA sequencing, the onerous task of capturing the diversity and multitude of lifeforms and their relationships to each other was made somewhat easier. One trunk of the tree, known as eukaryotes, includes animals (like us), plants, fungi and protozoans, a second trunk belongs to bacteria, and a third captures extremophile microbes dubbed Archaea. As you might have guessed, all known eukaryotes put together pale in comparison to the amount of bacterial life on our planet. While this snapshot of life as we know it will continue to change as we discover new lifeforms, it’s a fantastic shorthand for the mind-blowing diversity of our world.
Go, one of the oldest and yet most-challenging games in human history, has proved to be an excellent test for the best artificial intelligence human beings have yet created. Unfortunately for world champ Lee Sedol, his five-game match against Google’s DeepMind A.I. AlphaGo was a humbling one. Sedol managed to win one out of the five games, but the quick-learning and ruthlessly efficient AlphaGo out-performed all expectations. The A.G.I. (artificial general intelligence) was not designed to play Go, widely considered the most complex professional game out there, but rather to learn how to play simply from watching and playing millions upon millions of games. AlphaGo even made a mistake in one of the games due to its ignorance of a known tesuji, or best play from a given location, but it recovered from it… and will likely never forget that tesuji again. Does this mean the machines are preparing to rise up against us? No, of course not. But it does mean that our own research into artificial intelligence is progressing at a rapid enough pace to put ever-smarter computers into service alongside of us perhaps sooner than we have anticipated.
Materials Science / Energy
Not since Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated round-the-world trip in 1937 has an aviation attempt so captured the world’s attention. Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg took turns piloting the Solar Impulse–a 100% solar-powered aircraft–on a “17-stage journey [that] covered some 42,000km, taking in four continents, three seas and two oceans.” The project was a decade in the making, resulting in an aircraft that’s about the weight of a car but with the wingspan of a Boeing 747; that span houses 17,000 solar cells. The journey itself took 16.5 months and saw the piloting duo breaking 19 aviation records, including the absolute world record for longest (time duration) uninterrupted solo flight at nearly 118 hours. While this achievement is certainly significant, its inspirational cachet is arguably more so. Upon landing in Abu Dhabi to end the around-the-world flight that began with the intent to raise awareness of the capabilities of renewable energy, Piccard said, “The future is clean. The future is you. The future is now. Let’s take it further.”
2016 was a big year for physics, but the field’s biggest discovery of them all was confirmed not once but twice. Nearly 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in his General Theory of Relativity, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) confirmed that they had detected the waves’ existence. This ripple in spacetime caused by the acceleration of massive objects–like, say, two black holes orbiting each other to an ultimate collision–had been predicted by Einstein, but never directly observed … until now. (A second observation and confirmation came a few months later.) While this find is a huge win for the theory, it also gives researchers a new tool in their exploration and observation of our vast universe. By improving our detection and analysis of gravitational waves, we can better understand where they came from and what caused them, information which helps to fill in the blanks of our universe’s composition.
As impressive as discoveries of Earth-like planets, water-ice on Mars, and sub-surface oceans on moons continues to be, we’re still a long way from putting boots on the ground (or the icy crust) of these alien worlds. Elon Musk’s aerospace manufacturer and space transport company SpaceX is aiming to change that. Their goal has long been to reduce space transportation costs (and to colonize Mars) through reusable launch vehicles, an imposing feat to say the least. However, 2016 saw a huge leap forward in the company’s achievements when their Falcon 9 rocket stage returned from orbit and landed safely on an autonomous barge at sea. One day, this may be commonplace, but the feat is described as ” throwing a pencil over the Empire State Building and having it land upright on a bread box on the other side.” To sum it up, SpaceX launched a rocket, let that reusable stage fall back to Earth, sent a robot barge out to the middle of the ocean to catch it, and landed the rocket vertically, safe and intact. Then they did it again less than a month later. Not only does this save millions of dollars in costs, it speaks to the inspirational power of the engineers’ dedication, ingenuity, and vision for a future when anything’s possible.
Now that SpaceX has reusable rockets in the works, we might soon be able to start building structures off-world in low Earth orbit. This incremental step toward future manned space exploration will come in handy when we decide to head toward Proxima b, an Earth-like planet orbiting the closest star to our own sun. Presumably, the rocky planet that’s 1.3 times the mass of Earth has an orbit around the star Proxima Centauri every 11 Earth-days and is tidally locked, meaning that the planet always shows the same face to its star. Because of this, one side of the planet would be baked by the relatively dim and cool M Dwarf star (compared to our own sun), while the other would be left in the cold and dark. However, a possible habitable zone could exist at the border between the two, especially since the planet itself exists in the “Goldilocks” zone where liquid water and possibly life might exist. Want to stop by for a visit to see for yourself? It’s only 4.2 light years away, but we should probably set our sights on something a little closer to home in the meantime. Then again, we can always send robots.
In a year that saw the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission come to a close by landing on the subject of its scrutiny–comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko–NASA launched its first asteroid-sampling mission dubbed OSIRIS-REx. The admittedly derived acronym (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) describes a mission to “rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth” with the hopes of uncovering information on the origins of our solar system and much more. Bennu, and asteroids like it, is a mountain-sized, 4.5-billion-year-old remnant from the chaotic formation of our galactic neighborhood and may contain clues as to whether or not they delivered water and organic molecules to a primordial Earth. It’s another space-based mission that not only pushes the boundaries of our technological capabilities but also seeks to fill in the gaps of our picture of the universe. OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with Bennu in 2018 to commence a two-year long coordinated dance with the asteroid in order to take a sample of it in 2020; that sample is expected to return to Earth in 2023 for analysis at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, a first for the U.S.
Not all scientific discoveries were necessarily positive or even beneficial this year. As we researched 2016’s achievements, every month brought another record-breaking statistic related to climate change: rising temperatures, melting glaciers, loss of biodiversity, rise of sea level, and a rise in atmospheric CO2 levels. While atmospheric CO2 has been in headlines for decades, 2016 saw the level break a threshold not seen in about four million years. The global average for the value has been sustained at or above 400ppm all year, a value seen as a symbolic benchmark in global warming because we’re unlikely to see it drop below that value in our lifetimes. Normally, September is the month with the lowest atmospheric CO2 value due to a summer season in which plant life takes up their life-giving molecule, but as pollution and deforestation has continued to offset this balance, atmospheric CO2 will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.
This is just one more metric in the massive accumulation of evidence regarding global warming and climate change, and just one of many metrics that will unfortunately and undoubtedly be outpaced by new record-setting values at this time next year. So if we still want to be around in the decades to come in order to celebrate the achievements and discoveries of science, we need to make a concerted effort to battle climate change starting right now.
Did we miss your favorite significant scientific discovery of 2016? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!
Images: NASA, Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory, LIGO/SXS/R. Hurt/T. Pyle; Kenny Louie; Universal Pictures; Spacex; Flyout
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