The 2016 spending bill is a welcome reversal for United States science after a decade of cuts, boosting the budgets of U.S. science agencies across the board. But the good news comes after years of fighting over funding that put the future of U.S. innovation at risk.
Earlier this year, the House Science Committee fought to slash NASA’s funding by $300 million. Last year, National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins said the agency was forced to reject half of the promising research proposals they received because of budgetary concerns. Two years ago, the U.S. budget sequester slashed funding for science across the board. This trend stretches back years. Though the United States owes its superpower status partly to a dominance in innovation, China is predicted to outspend us in research and development by the year 2020.
Now, science advocates hope the new boost in funding will help the NIH recover from years of underfunding, potentially paving the way for future advances. After all, the foundation for a breakthrough is often laid years before the studies grab headlines.
So as scientists celebrate the much-needed budgetary reprieve, here are some the most consequential advances from this year that prove just how revolutionary scientific research can be. The discoveries come from the edges of our solar system to the bowels of South Africa — changing the way we understand our universe and ourselves.
Pictures Of A Far-Off World
This year, the world saw the first high-definition pictures of Pluto — revealing a world with blue skies, red ice and a geology far more diverse than previously thought.
The images came from New Horizons, a NASA spacecraft launched in 2006 — ironically, mere months before Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet — to explore the furthest reaches of our solar system. New Horizons beamed back images to Earth from its Pluto fly-by over 3 billion miles away, and turned the edge of our solar system from an abstract pattern of pinpricks into a new frontier for science and exploration.
The spacecraft’s long, lonely journey has more than paid off. Now, NASA’s scientists have the opportunity to study the geology of a planet that they’ll never personally see in incredible detail. New Horizon’s photographs show that Pluto is home to mountains, nitrogen ice flows, networks of valleys, even possibly frozen water and fields of wind-blown dunes. The dunes in particular, scientists say, are a “head-scratcher,” because conventional wisdom says that Pluto’s atmosphere should too thin. Either they’re a new kind of dune, or Pluto once had a different type of atmosphere. Plus, evidence from New Horizons shows that Pluto may have tectonic motion, contradicting the previously-held notion that it’s an icy, dead world.
New Horizons is powered, appropriately, by a plutonium generator that should run until 2030, and is continuing its exploratory journey into the edges of our system. Due to the long distance, it should continue projecting pictures and information it gathered in its Pluto fly-by into 2016.
A Game-Changing Method Of Gene Editing
CRISPR, short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” is a game-changing method of gene editing. It’s cheap, quick, and easy to use, and can be used in a wide variety of organisms — including humans.
Researchers discovered CRISPR’s potential for genome editing in 2012 and its experimental use has been rapidly rising ever since. The possibilities are positively futuristic, from editing out genetic diseases to quick, inexpensive methods of genetically modifying crops. CRISPR makes the 2015 list of breakthroughs, though, because of three things that scientists used it for this year:
1. Researchers at Harvard used CRISPR to successfully splice Woolly Mammoth DNA into the genome of an Asian elephant, showing that no one learned anything from any of the Jurassic Park movies.
2. Researchers at UC San Diego used CRISPR on fruit flies to create a gene drive, which is when one genetic modification is quickly spread through an entire population. Gene drives could have enormous potential — for example, a gene drive in mosquitos could be used to wipe out malaria-carrying populations — but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that a poorly-designed modification, spread uncontrolled through an entire biological population, could have dire ecological consequences, or even be used as a biological weapon.
3. Chinese scientists used CRISPR to modify the genomes of non-viable human embryos. It was the first time the technology was used on human DNA and it was less than a rousing success, but it ignited a massive ethical debate. Human gene editing could be used to eradicate disease, but any genetic change made to a human embryo would be heritable — as would any unintended side effects.
A group of international scientists have since called for a moratorium on any inheritable edits to the human genome, while others believe it holds the future to eradicating genetic disease and ought, if anything, to be encouraged. In the 2016 spending bill, U.S. lawmakers sided with the former: The FDA is prohibited from using government funds on any research involving embryonic gene editing.
As a complicating factor, every time human gene editing comes up, so does the specter of “designer babies” — a future that CRISPR’s detractors say it brings much closer. Its defenders, meanwhile, point out that while diseases such as Huntington’s are linked to just one mutated gene and therefore easy to edit, traits such as intelligence are difficult to manufacture because they’re linked to a variety of factors. Regardless of where the ethical debate ends up, CRISPR has already changed the future of genetic research and medicine.
A New Kind Of Human
In September, scientists announced the discovery of a new species of human, complicating the human family tree and adding crucial information to the unfolding picture of human evolution.
The story behind the find is incredible: It started by happenstance, when two spelunkers discovered a treasure trove of bones deep in a cave in South Africa. They brought the information to Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist obsessed with filling the million-year gap on the human evolutionary tree between Lucy and Homo erectus. It was the find Berger had been waiting for, but the cavers, two particularly svelte men, had found the bones by inching through a passage merely 8 inches wide. Berger wouldn’t fit. He put out the widest call possible — using Facebook — for individuals of a very specific profile: experienced scientists, experienced cavers, and most importantly, “skinny and preferably small.” From applicants fitting all the criteria he chose the most qualified; all 6 were women. In all, these “underground astronauts” recovered more than 1,500 bones from the cave.
Above ground, the fossils coalesced into a curious creature: primitive and apish from the waist up, with tiny brains and shoulders fit for climbing, but becoming more and more modern closer to the ground — with feet almost resembling our own. In the end, although this new ancestor is much closer to Homo erectus than to the earlier Australopithecines like Lucy, it’s different enough to provisionally warrant a new species category in the Homo genus: Homo naledi.
Questions about Homo naledi abound: How old is it? How did the bones get so far below ground? How does it fit into the overall picture of human ancestry? One thing, though, is for sure: this new ancestor is a major find in the quest to understand human evolution.
Mapping The Epigenome
If the human genome is the instruction manual by which we are constructed, the epigenome is the set of notes, crossings-out, and addendums that clarify the instructions and say which ones to use when. Every cell in a person’s body has the same genome: it’s the epigenome that differentiates the cells through a system of molecular switches that turn certain genetic sequences on and off, making one cell a skin cell and another a neuron.
The epigenome also has incredible medical ramifications: It can explain why identical twins get different diseases, why some people with cancer in their genes get cancer and others don’t, and countless other aspects of our biology. As medicine focuses more and more on “precision” treatments targeting the underlying genetic causes of disease, mapping the epigenome is crucial. It’s an incredibly daunting set of variables to understand, though — gene expression can be influenced by everything from parental nurturing to smoking.
Early this year, scientists from the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program made a giant leap forward, publishing research in the journal Nature parsing how 127 tissue and cells differ at the level of their DNA and its expression. As the scientists researched, they deposited their findings into a public database for scientists — which has already opened up new avenues of research in Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
Seriously: A team out of Harvard wired up the brains of living mice, and are now able to stimulate and monitor individual neurons. And all it took was a prick of a needle (and some serious science).
The scientists created a soft, flexible mesh from a conductive polymer, which brain tissue melds with and grows around like a scaffold. They laced the mesh with nanowires, rolled it up, and used a hollow needle to implant it in anesthetized mice’s brains, where it unfurled and intermingled with the brain tissue. The nanowires, touching individual neurons without irritating them, then can record or spark neural activity with extreme precision, effectively creating a mouse brain that is part biological, part electronic.
In other words, a cyborg.
Right now, the mice need to be hooked up to a computer for the nanowires to transmit information, but future versions will likely be wireless. Researchers hope to scale up the mesh, enabling them to study hundreds of neurons at once, over a long period of time — research which is not currently possible, and has huge potential to expand our understanding of how the brain works.
If proven safe, this could be the prototype of real-life neural lace in humans, and could lead to astonishing medical and technological advancements. By stimulating degraded brain areas, a similar mesh could treat neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. It could also be used to integrate humans even closer to technology — effecting plugging the computers right into our brains. Just imagine how much more work-life balance could deteriorate! The military, for one, welcomes our new cyborg mice overlords: One of the funders for the study is the U.S. Air Force.
Flowing Water on the Red Planet
This year evidence from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) all-but confirmed a long-held hypothesis (and the crux of many extraterrestrial Martian theories): there’s flowing water on present-day Mars. The MRO was investigating darkish streaks known as “recurring slope linae” on the planet that appear to ebb and flow over time, traveling downhill. By analyzing the chemistry of the streaks, researchers found that they contain the signatures of hydrated salts — which, like salt on snowy roads in the winter, would lower the freezing point of the water, enabling it to stay liquid even in Mars’ frigid atmosphere.
Although scientists already knew that there’s ample frozen water on the red planet and that it was likely home to oceans billions of years ago, the discovery of liquid — albeit extremely briny — water on the Mars’ surface is exciting for one big reason: it makes it much more likely that Mars could be home to microbial life. In other words: Aliens. They could be closer than we think.
Even Crazier 3D Printing Tools
Scientists have used 3D printing to make implants, affordable and easily customizable robotic prosthetics, and customized models of patients’ bones, breaks, and tumors to help physicians plan treatments and practice for surgery — preparation that can be the difference between life and death. Most 3D printing is done with plastic or metal, which is melted down and then excreted through a nozzle, almost like ink. The nozzle creates layer after layer, building up a 3D structure.
This year, however, scientists took the technology a step further by enabling 3D printing to move way beyond plastic and metal. Using bone powder and “biological glue” as ink, researchers at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China created precise artificial bones that are actually made of bone. Theoretically, such bones could revolutionize transplants even more than 3D printing has already done. The team is now testing the differences between printed bones and real ones, moving towards animal testing.
Elsewhere in China, a company announced this year that it had successfully transplanted an artificial, biodegradable 3D printed bone into a rabbit — where new bone cells promptly began growing on its surface. The company created the implant, which had the same porous nature and strength of actual bone, with a new printing process that uses UV light and heat to print, instead of melting the “ink” — such as plastic — into a workable paste first. This enables the printer to use a wider range of printing materials.
And in the United States, 3D printing is going molecular: Researchers in Illinois made a 3D printer that can print almost any molecule — no matter how difficult to obtain — by 3D printing the components from starter chemicals and snapping them together like Legos to form complex molecules. The machine promises to revolutionize the synthesis of new medical compounds, can even synthesize molecules humans have never tested before.
Most of the time, scientific achievements aren’t glamorous or headline-grabbing. In fact, many of these breakthroughs took years to come to fruition.
New Horizons was launched almost 10 years ago, and quietly jetted through empty space for much of that time — to say nothing of the time it took to build and test the technology. Lee Berger, the lead paleoanthropologist behind the Homo naledi discovery, spent nearly 20 years looking for fossils in South Africa, stubbornly pursuing an unpopular hypothesis despite professional rejection and the bone-grindingly slow pace of piecemeal discovery.
These efforts require financial support, as well as the opportunity for educated scientists to research freely — whether by obtaining an NIH grant or by landing a tenured faculty position, both of which are dwindling resources. Although 2016 budget is a step in the right direction, the amazing discoveries of 2015 are a reminder: The breakthroughs of tomorrow are being built today.