Top Ten Science and Technology Advances in 2016
In terms of advances in science and technology worldwide, 2016 has been a great year. We have improved our understanding of some fundamental questions concerning organization of galaxies and human evolution. Moreover, with progress in applied technology there are faster and better communication technologies, energy-efficient solutions and encouraging developments in the fight against cancer and infectious diseases. Here is a roundup of what made 2016 worthwhile despite all the political and socioeconomic turmoil that gripped most of the world through this period.
- Editing Bad DNA with CRISPR Systems to Treat Diseases
Illustration by Jennifer Doudna/UC Berkeley
While the discovery of a special genome editing process in bacteria was made several years ago, the therapeutic use of this naturally occurring process in human diseases moved several steps ahead last year. CRISPR or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats are now being used to edit out portions of the genome for the treatment of different diseases . Towards the end of 2016, CRISPR technology was used in clinical trials in humans for the very first time. The first person to get this treatment was a lung cancer patient. The study was conducted by Dr. Lu You at Sichuan University, China.
Briefly, CRISPR system makes use of a nuclease such as Cas9. Nuclease is an enzyme that can cleave portions of DNA or RNA. Cas9 cleaves the target sequence which is later transcribed (converted to RNA) and then remembered by the enzyme which then proceeds to find similar sequences and clips them out of the invading virus or defective genetic sequence.
The potential of the CRISPR system is huge since it does not necessarily incorporate foreign DNA but rather corrects the existing one and allows permanent expression of the desired trait with highly specific results. Moreover going forward there is the possibility of treating genetic disorders that seemingly have no cure, like sickle cell disease, Alzheimer’s and others.
CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing systems are under study at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia. Their paper was published in Nature group’s journal, Scientific Reports in 2016 that investigates the system’s potential in fighting plant viruses. KAUST scientists in collaboration with SALK Institute, USA are also involved in the leading edge research being conducted on CRISPR systems for
targeting DNA in non-dividing cells, published in Nature, which can restore vision in blind animals.
A group in Turkey is also studying CRISPR/Cas9 system at the Cankiri Karatekin University and Dokuz Eylul University. The Turkish group is exploring CRISPR’s potential in targeting metabolic pathways in plants and has reported their results in Scientific Reports.
- Sensing the gravitational waves a century after their prediction
Image source: The SXS (Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes) Project
Perhaps the most talked about achievement of last year was the confirmation of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein nearly a century ago in his theory of relativity.
Briefly, gravitational waves are generated by extremely large collisions, like two black holes colliding or from exploding stars. These events cannot be detected by electromagnetic radiations as their emission during such events is pretty low.
However gravitational waves travel wide distances in the universe and therefore can be detected from places far away from the source. For instance, the discovery made in late 2015 was from two colliding black holes estimated to have occurred 1.3 billion years ago. The discovery was made at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Waves Observatory) located in Washington and Louisiana.
These interferometer observatories have detectors of extraordinary sensitivity that can resolve distance in the order of 10-19 meters. The gravitational waves resulting from two orbiting black holes causes a ripple in spacetime that can travel huge distances and can be detected by these highly sensitive observatories.
LIGO is funded by National Science Foundation and operated by CalTech and MIT. The construction of third such observatory has been approved in India early this year.
While hundreds of scientists from all over the world contributed to the discovery of gravitational waves, two Pakistani-born contributors include Dr. Nergis Mavalvala and Imran Khan. Dr. Mavalvala is the Associate head of Department of Physics at MIT and played a central role in the discovery whereas Imran Khan was a PhD researcher at Gran Sasso Science Institute in Italy. Hafizah Noor Isa who is a PhD candidate at University of Glasgow, Institute of Gravitational Research (IGR), was also involved in the discovery. Ms. Isa hails from Malaysia. In addition to these there are contributions from several other Muslim scientists in this remarkable discovery.
- Leaps in Artificial Intelligence
A major hurdle in designing artificially intelligent devices has been the time spent in the learning phase. Compared to robots, humans have had a long period of childhood which helps them understand their environment and design stimulus based responses. The duration of learning phase can be reduced if one robot can learn from another robot’s experience.
This was observed when a robot at Brown University was able to learn from another at Cornell University to do a particular task in a different set of conditions. Researchers believe that this kind of progress will lead to an exponential increase in a robot’s intelligence over 5-10 years.
Another development in the AI sphere was the vast improvements made to digital speech recognition systems. In 2016, Baidu, China’s leading search engine, revealed updates to its Deep Speech 2 software. This voice recognition software beats Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and other popular smartphone voice assistants. Deep Speech 2 runs seven times faster and has a much lower error rate. Moreover it easily wins the competition with its audio to text transcription ability against a human typing the same text.
- Beginning of Carbon Based Transistor Era?
For so many years computational technology has relied on silicon transistors, however in September 2016, a carbon based transistor was able to outperform a silicon transistor in laboratory conditions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The material science engineers at UWM were able to transfer current nearly two times higher through the carbon based transistors compared to their best silicon counterparts.
Carbon nanotubes have faster processing speed which makes them more efficient compared to silicon semiconductors. These are unique in the respect that they are made of sheets that are one-atom thick and therefore take up less space. It is also estimated that carbon based transistors will consume five times less energy and time compared to the current technology. Commercial production of this technology is being pursued by major IT companies like International Business Machines (IBM). This invention is a significant step towards outmoding of silicon-based complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) transistors.
- Armed Immune Cells to Fight Cancer and Infections
The fight against cancer has been a long and hard one, and 2016 saw more promise in treating cancer by arming T cells (a type of immune cells in our body). The story achieved mainstream media attention when a six year old girl suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia was cured of her disease in 2012. The therapy used inactivated virus to deliver altered DNA into the patient’s own T cells.
Four years later another breakthrough came with the treatment of a 12-month old at the Great Ormond Street Hospital, London in late 2015. This little girl was also suffering from leukemia but the difference in the treatment was that this batch of T cells that were not her own. These T cells were extensively edited, yet they would not have triggered a counterproductive immune response that would have killed the engineered T cells. Cellectis, a Biotech company, that had manufactured these cells had only tested them on mouse models, and this in-human test was a huge risk which returned promising results in the end.
Side by side now there are more clinical trials that test the potential of these universal T cells as well as the potential of the patient’s own T cells in treating cancer. This strategy could go on to treat other infections, the most troublesome of which is HIV-AIDS which despite so many advances is still not completely cured with the existing therapies.
few things to note here are that T cell therapy has extensive side effects and is not a ‘cure-all’. This method of attacking cancer is only used as a last resort when the patient has exhausted all other treatment options. Gradually it seems immunotherapy is going to join the ranks of cancer treatment where previously chemotherapy and radiotherapy were the only available options.
Among OIC nations, Saudi Arabia leads the way with some promising research in the field of T cell based therapy. In a study published in Molecular Therapy, researchers from King Fahad Specialist Center and George Papanicolaou Hospital Greece present their results on multi-pathogen specific T cells which can help patients suffering from post-transplantation infections.
A group of researchers at Tarbiat Modares University, Iran have also found some promising results in a mouse model of melanoma with dendritic cell (another type of immune cells) based immunotherapy.
Another study published in Molecular Immunology, scientists from University of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, University of Jordan and Al-Azhar University, Cairo present data on T cells that can recognize multiple tumors for use in stem cell therapy in leukemia patients.
- Possibility of Eternal Data Storage with Super Memory Crystal
With each passing year, the digital data storage needs are ballooning. There is also the problem that current data storage methods have a limited shelf life and are therefore not viable over extended periods of time. However things changed in February 2016 when scientists from University of Southampton were able to transfer storage capability onto nano-structured glass. This invention has been named Super Memory Crystal which is resistant to temperatures as high as 1,000°C and has a shelf life of 13.8 billion years with a storage capacity of 360 Terabytes. Data is written on this device with pulses of ultrafast laser. With this technology now we have the ability to store information over virtually an infinite period.
Carbon emissions are a cause of major concern when it comes to environmental pollution and global warming. In 2016, CO2 saturation level sustained at an average of 400ppm, a record breaking figure. While reducing carbon dioxide emission through greener alternatives is one way of dealing with this pressing issue, it is not the easiest or sometimes the most practical solution. Scientists in Iceland have managed to speed up a natural process that converts CO2 into basalt and then to carbonate minerals, and later to limestone. This method captures the atmospheric CO2 and stores it away in the form of rocks, consequently mitigating its harmful impact.
This mineralization of CO2 is accomplished by pumping it into volcanic bedrock. This process occurs naturally as well over thousands of years, however researchers were able to speed it up in two years experimentally. The study, published in Science, was a collaborative effort of Columbia University, University of Southampton, University of Iceland, University College London, Reykjavik Energy and others.
This method has the advantage of no carbon dioxide leakage, as other ways of Carbon Capture and Storage like, in abandoned oil reservoirs, has the disadvantage of leakage. This is a major development as it provides a safe way of converting carbon dioxide into other products that are environment friendly.
- A Single Mutation Could Have Been Responsible for the Start of Multi-cellular Life
In early 2016, a study was published in the eLifesciences journal that reported the identification of a key molecule possibly responsible for the evolution of unicellular organisms to the multicellular state. The present form of this molecule called guanylate kinase or GK, has a single substitution in its protein-interaction domain (PID) which determines the function that it performs today. GKPID mediates the proper division of chromosomes into dividing cells, however this enzyme was not so efficient 600 million years ago. Later this year, the same group found the exact changes this mutation imparted to the enzyme’s function. They found that the unicellular version of this protein was flexible but the mutation changed it to a rigid protein with a specific function. These discoveries provide key data on the evolution of multicellular organism and highlight the important changes that happened during the course.
- Discovery of 99.9% Dark Matter in Dragonfly 44 galaxy
Source: PIETER VAN DOKKUM, ROBERTO ABRAHAM, GEMINI, SLOAN DIGITAL SKY SURVEY
It is estimated that five-sixth of the universe is made of dark matter, the type of unidentifiable matter that does not interact with electromagnetic radiations. In a major discovery last year, scientists found a galaxy that had a dark matter content of 99.99%. The discovery of this galaxy was made in 2015, but the reasons behind its dim appearance were revealed in mid-2016 by observations made at the WM Keck Observatory and the Gemini North Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
This galaxy named Dragonfly 44 has a mass trillion times more than our sun, almost the same as the Milky Way but with very few stars compared to our galaxy. Due to the excess of dark matter in Dragonfly 44, the movement of stars within its realm is quite different compared to the Milky Way, and the observation of these movements became the key in understanding this galaxy’s composition. This discovery opens doors for further investigations in the study of dark matter and the organization of different galaxies.
- Ninth planet in the Solar System
The debate on the ninth planet in the Solar System has been going on for a while now. Recent evidence points to its existence with nearly 99.993% certainty. Scientists at CalTech have presented data that suggests the existence of a ninth planet with an orbital round of 15000 years. The mass of this planet is about the same as Neptune and it is located about ten times further than Pluto. These astronomers argue that the gravitational clustering seen beyond Neptune has only 0.007% likelihood of just happening by chance, so the Planet 9 does exist probably at a distance of 30,000,000,000 to 240,000,000,000 kilometers from the Sun.