Sunday, 9 March 2014

Significant Scientific Breakthroughs During the Last Year

by Sampad Sengupta

If anyone is asked what they think is a major achievement or breakthrough in science over the past couple of years, their answer is most likely to be that of the experiments carried out at the Large Hadron Collider, the findings of the Mars Rover, Curiosity, or maybe something to do with stem cell research (cliché answers given by some of the people I asked). 

However, there is more happening in the world of science that perhaps not everyone is aware of.  Let’s have a look at some significant scientific discoveries or achievements over the past year… 

1.       Cancer Immunotherapy:  For many years now, research has been carried out into ways in which cancer can be prevented or cured. Several methods of treatment have been tried to combat the disease but in 2013 the cancer research community experienced a sea change as a strategy, decades in the making, finally cemented its potential. Clinical trials of cancer immunotherapy yielded positive results, harnessing the immune system in battling tumours rather than targeting the tumours directly.  Although the ultimate impact of the treatment remains unknown, the results so far have been quite promising.

2.       Cosmic Particle Accelerator identified:  Originally detected many decades ago, scientists were not sure of the origin of high-energy particles from outer space known as cosmic rays. There were theories stating that most cosmic rays are accelerated in the shock waves from massive exploding stars called supernovae. Magnetic fields in space scramble the particles’ trajectories, making it nearly impossible to trace them back to their sources. Last year however, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (see below) was successful in locating radiation signatures in space which confirmed these theories.

Fermi gamma ray space telescope

3.       Genome Editing:  Early last year, research teams announced a new method for carrying out genome editing. The technique, called CRISPR, is based on a protein called ‘cas9’ which forms part of a defence strategy used by bacteria. They use it to slice up the DNA of predatory viruses. Researchers now use cas9 as a scalpel for surgery on individual genes. In molecular biology, cell-free DNA detection of the foetus in maternal systems is in practice for detection of chromosomal abnormalities of unborn babies.

4.       Billions of Earth-like planets:  According to scientists, there about 10 billion planets like earth out there in our very own Milky Way galaxy.  Data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope suggests that about one in five of the 50 billion sun-like stars in our galaxy could be congenial to life.

Dr Henry Snaith from Oxford University, holding a perovskite solar cell (see below)

5.       Perovskite solar cells:  Even as the search goes on for cheap, eco-friendly and renewable sources of energy, solar energy remains a popular choice.  A new generation of solar-cell materials, cheaper and easier to produce than those in traditional silicon cells, garnered plenty of attention this past year. These cells, called Perovskite solar cells, can convert 15% of the energy in sunlight into electricity and are therefore not as efficient as the commercial silicon solar cells yet, but are gaining rapidly.

6.       CLARITY:  It is a new brain-imaging technique that turns brain tissue transparent. It removes fatty lipid molecules that make up cellular membranes and scatter light, making brain tissue opaque. These lipids are replaced by molecules of clear gel, which renders the brain tissue see-through but leave brain cells and neurones which can then be studied.  Even though currently the technique is only limited to small amounts of tissue, researchers believe that it could “speed up by 100-fold tasks such as counting all the neurons in a given brain region and could make traditional methods of imaging post-mortem brain tissue irrelevant”.

After such an exciting year in science, we look forward to learning more about advances in these fields and unravelling the mysteries of what is not yet known to us.

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