The Science of 2016 (Part 1)

New members of the periodic table, tantalising hints of gravitational waves and controversial experiments in the life sciences. Here is the trending research of the new year.

Periodic update, by Jennifer Hack

What better way to kick off the New Year than with the synthesis of four new elements, which together complete the seventh row of the periodic table. Groups working in Japan, Russia and the US have devoted their research to creating the new elements. They were synthesised by firing beams of ions at heavy metal targets, which resulted in formation of the elements with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118. The new elements only exist for fractions of seconds, which has made the groups carry out extensive and meticulous research to prove that their claims are substantiated. Now they will need names and symbols, which are chosen by the institutions at which they were discovered. This process could take a little while however, so the thousands of periodic tables around the world don’t have to be updated quite yet!

The Microbiome, by Rosalind Tucker

This is also the year that the first results of one of the most ambitious sequencing projects are to be released. The Earth Microbiome Project aims to describe and characterise 200,000 genes from microbial DNA samples, collected from across the world. It is expected that the results will yield clues about the multitude of processes, which rely on microbes, that occur within ecosystems. Of course, humans have their own relationship with microbes, and scientists have already exposed an unprecedented number of important roles that bacteria play in health and disease. Examples include links between the microbiota and obesity, autism, autoimmune disorders and depression. With some of the project samples so far being taken from komodo dragons, deep sea sediments, hypersaline waters and deserts, who knows that the results will reveal? The conclusions could uncover some disturbing knock-on effects of environmental change, or expose unknown functions of these mysterious microbial genes

Gravitational Waves, by Tommy Pallett and Elizabeth Hopper

The next big astrophysical goal: to detect ripples in the fabric of space-time. The ‘ripples’, known as gravitational waves, are generated by the acceleration of massive bodies such as those found in binary star systems, and were first predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. The energy these bodies emit causes space-time to vibrate, and the waves generated distort everything in their path. When they reach Earth, the size of the displacement is in the order of a billionth of the width of an atom, which luckily can be detected by extremely sensitive interferometers, such as the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) centres in Washington and Louisiana. Interferometers have two long arms at right angles, along which laser beams are reflected so that they travel up to 62 miles. The laser beams start simultaneously, but passing gravitational waves alter their paths, so if the beams are not in synchrony when they return, it can be inferred that a gravitational wave has disrupted their journey. Everything is ready to go, we’re just waiting for a cosmic event dramatic enough to produce a detectable gravitational wave: a huge supernova or the collision of two black holes perhaps. If detected, we can use this new technology to begin searching for objects actually constructed of warped space-time.

Deadly Diseases, by Eloise Godden

2016 may also see the return of ‘gain of function’ research in infectious viruses, after the last ban came to an end in October 2015. The US government has performed a risk-benefit analysis to decide whether to resume, after prohibiting funding of the research for one year. Gain of function research involves genetically modifying viruses, in this case the influenza virus and SARS virus, to make them more lethal or infectious. Study of these strains could uncover how to target, attenuate and eliminate these viruses. But does the risk of accidental virus escape outweigh the potential discoveries? A more transmissible and deadly viruses could easily cause a pandemic. Gain of function research has been intermittent due to fears of outbreak from the scientific community. The first year-long ban began in 2012. Research was resumed until 2014 when another ban was introduced. Lab accidents involving pathogen contamination have occurred in the past, initiating protest against gain of function experiments. Whether 2016 will see the research resume will indicate how much the US government values the benefits over the drawbacks.

Genome Editing, by Charles Hyde

Dr Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute will soon make her case to regulators to perform gene editing procedures on human embryos—the first to be potentially edited in the UK. If successful with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the first embryos could be modified as soon as this summer. Dr Niakan is trying to understand the first week in the womb. This is where the fertilised egg develops into a blastocyst: a collection of 200-300 cells. Fewer than half of fertilised eggs reach this stage, so new research into DNA activity could be crucial to understanding miscarriage and fertility. Dr Niakan’s intention is to use the Crispr system to switch genes off at different stages, and see how they affect development. While this research could be a first step in improving IVF treatment, some feel that Dr Niakan’s research would go too far. Dr David King, Director of Human Genetics Alert, said: “This is the first step on a path that scientists have carefully mapped out towards the legalisation of GM babies.

Cancer Research, by Marcus Cassop-Thompson

As populations grow older, the battle against cancer has never been more important. The holy grail of cancer research is figuring out how to kill cancerous cells, which were once part of healthy tissue, without damaging the rest of the body. The problem of specific targeting is currently being addressed using genetically modified oncolytic viruses as well as looking for novel ways to use our own immune system to preferentially seek out cancer antigens and destroy the cancer cells. Research and clinical trials have already shown promise; last year Duke University gained publicity after some patients in their clinical trial using a modified poliovirus ‘PSV-RIPO’ to treat glioblastoma could return to a normal life. It will be exciting to follow developments in this crucial field of modern medicine, especially if the technology can be applied to other types of cancer.

Illustration: Kenzo Ishida

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