There have been some incredible scientific discoveries this past year, and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some discoveries I did not get time to cover. From revolutionary cancer tests, to a completely new neuron being discovered, here are some of the wonderful discoveries of 2018.
A test to detect cancer in less than 10 minutes
Researchers in Queensland Australia have discovered a unique DNA nanostructure that appears to be shared between all types of cancer and have developed a rapid test to detect the presence of cancer in under 10 minutes.
Developing a universal cancer test has proved elusive due to the variability of the disease – there are over 100 types of cancer and each have different signatures. However, researchers have found that all cancer types dramatically change the methyl groups that decorate the healthy cells DNA in the same way.
“In healthy cells, these methyl groups are spread out across the genome, but the genomes of cancer cells are essentially barren except for intense clusters of methyl groups at very specific locations,” said Dr Carrascosa, a researcher at the University of Queensland.
Besides being key in turning genes on and off, they found the methyl group clusters caused the cancerous DNA to fold into a 3-dimensional shape different to healthy cells. This was a key difference that could be used to quickly differentiate between normal and cancerous DNA, ideally without the need for advanced laboratory equipment. A test was then created that could easily be performed – adding the DNA to water containing gold nanoparticles. The nanoparticles give the water a pink colour, and the unique 3-dimensional structure of the DNA means the healthy DNA binds to the nanoparticles differently to the cancerous DNA. The addition of cancerous DNA means the water stays pink, while the addition of healthy DNA turns the water blue.
This reaction is clearly visible to the human eye and takes only a few minutes, which has led to the development of inexpensive portable detection devices. Early detection can be a game-changer in terms of effective treatment, so the faster the detection the better.
The first “gene-edited” babies
A team in China, led by Jiankui He, has used the CRISPR/Cas9 system (this system is explained in How CRISPR can save our coral reefs) to alter a gene to block HIV infection in unborn babies. At the time of announcement, the babies had already been born and were a few weeks old, He also revealed another woman in the early stages of pregnancy is also taking part. Genetically altering embryos has been the subject of heated debates for many years, so the announcement came with an unsurprising portion of outrage from the scientific community.
He’s group used CRISPR to disable the CCR5 gene. CCR5 encodes a protein which allows the HIV virus to enter cells, and natural variations of this gene have been found which protect against HIV. Several concerns were voiced after the announcement such as if the intervention, which was called reckless by many, was even necessary. The likelihood of the children being infected with HIV is low as the mother did not have HIV herself and there is also the chance that the editing has not been completely successful. Some cells may have been incompletely edited while others were not edited at all, this is called the “mosaic” effect and would leave the children just as vulnerable to HIV. Another concern is there is a chance that the editing could have unexpected effects on other parts of the DNA, putting their health at risk further.
It has been widely agreed that genetically editing embryo’s crosses a line and could be a slippery slope to “designer babies”. This technology gives us the incredible potential ability to prevent suffering and hardship for children and families by preventing genetic diseases and conditions of unborn children, but it is also likely to eventually be abused. This abuse could entail it being used to change characteristics purely for aesthetic purposes, such as the colour of the child’s eyes.
A new kind of neuron
The human brain is incredibly complex and a lot remains to be discovered, however a breakthrough was published on the discovery of an entirely new type of neuron which so far seems to exist only in the human brain. A group of neuroscientists have discovered a brain cell in the neocortex that has never been seen before, and due to its appearance has been dubbed the “rosehip neuron”.
The results were published in the study “Transcriptomic and Morphophysiological Evidence For A Specialized Human Cortical GABAergic Cell Type” and was a collaboration between a team led by Ed Lein in the US, and Gábor Tamás in Hungary. The US team studied the genomics of the cells to distinguish differences, while the Hungarian team examined the cells shapes and electrical properties. The cells seem to be inhibitory neurons, meaning they slow down the electrical activity of the excitatory pyramidal neurons.
The rosehip neurons have not yet been found in mice or other laboratory animals, and understanding the physiological differences between species could explain why we see differences in neurological studies between mice and humans.
Living in the permafrost for 42,000 years
This past year, scientists thawed samples of Siberian permafrost and found microscopic soil-dwelling worms perfectly preserved from the Pleistocene era. They found to not only to be perfectly preserved, but they began moving and eating.
This is the first time that a multicellular animal has been naturally cryopreserved, but it may not be the only organism surviving in the permafrost. In 2014 a giant virus that only affects amoebas was found and revived after a 30,000-year slumber in the Siberian permafrost.
There are growing concerns the thawing permafrost could release diseases that are harmful to humans, and these concerns aren’t groundless. In the summer of 2016 a heat wave hit the arctic and thawed a large amount of permafrost in Siberia, releasing previously frozen anthrax spores. These spores caused an outbreak and hospitalised a 12-year old boy, so it’s not a far stretch to hypothesise there are further diseases concealed in the ice and permafrost.
The Ozone layer is healing
On a more positive note after discussing potential diseases lurking in the ice – there are signs the ozone layer is finally healing!
The ozone layer protects the surface of our planet and living creatures from harmful rays, but in the mid 80’s a large hole was identified over Antarctica. It was found that man-made chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in aerosol’s were the culprit, chlorine in particular being the main CFC by-product.
The study monitored the levels of chlorine by detecting the hydrochloric acid levels which forms when chlorine reacts with methane. In summer the CFC’s break down, producing chlorine, while in winter the chlorine binds with methane forming hydrochloric acid.
The study found a 20% decrease in ozone depletion due to chlorine between 2005 and 2016, and if this rate continues the ozone layer in the northern hemisphere and mid-latitudes could be completely restored by 2030! The more problematic areas could take until 2060, but there is the hope that with further efforts this could be sooner. This is great news in the fight for healing the damage we are causing our planet.
We are producing more energy from renewables than ever before
In the UK over 33% of energy is now coming from renewable sources, and in Germany renewable energy has overtaken coal as a main power source!
The efforts of many and increased efficiency of appliances has meant the output of British power stations was the lowest it has been since 1994. As well as windfarms (accounting for 17%), more biomass plants, solar and hydro sources are being used. There is still a way to go but the most used source of energy (gas) dropped 4%.
“We are investing more than £2.5 billion in low carbon innovation by 2021, helping this booming market to thrive, creating jobs, delivering clean energy and tackling climate change” said Energy minister Claire Perry
Meanwhile in Germany, renewable energy has become the dominant source of electricity in 2018. The dry hot summer allowed a huge amount of solar energy to be collected, but in turn this dwindled the hydropower plants. Germany has ambitious goals for renewables to provide 65% of its energy by 2030.
Outside of Europe, a research team in India have found a catalyst which makes the conversion of industrial biomass far more efficient. This could be the start of a huge economic boom for India but also potentially changing the game for biomass plants, all round good news!
2018 was a fantastic year for science, and I am very excited about what 2019 will bring!