2014 Science Highlights: Part 1


Another year passes, so it’s time for another round up of the most interesting scientific events that have happened in the last 12 months. 2014 has been a year full of fascinating discoveries, both in this planet and outside of it, but with some disappointing realisations too.

 1. The Ebola Crisis Continues

ebola

The Ebola virus keeps taking lives and will continue to do so until we find a treatment

The Ebola virus gained a lot of attention this autumn when it grew to an unprecedented size: it became the larges Ebola outbreak in history. In fact, the WHO declared it a global public health emergency and many countries and organisations rushed to contribute some help. At first contained in West Africa, there were a couple of isolated cases in Europe and the USA which caused even more panic, but it has died down. As with many catastrophes, after the initial spotlight, the Ebola pandemic has lost a lot of attention from the public, even though it has not stopped growing. However, it is slightly more controlled, and due to all the press it received, plenty of research is going into treating it, which should hopefully yield some treatments or a vaccine.

2. Stem Cells Stump

Mouse embryo with beating heart

The original STAP cells, which held so much potential, but turned out to be too good to be true

There was a great flurry of excitement at the beginning of this year when researchers in Japan claimed to have created stem cells by simply dipping blood cells into acid. The STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells were great for medical research since they got rid of the ethical issues of using embryonic stem cells. The potential of this easy and cheap method were immense, so as soon as the results were published, many scientists from around the world tried to carry out the experiment themselves. But they couldn’t. The results couldn’t be replicated. A more in depth investigation showed that the results of the original experiment were not accurate, and now the theory has, unfortunately, been disproved.

3. Rosetta and Philae

rosetta philae

A representation showing Rosetta (left) and Philae (right) on the surface of 67P

You can’t summarise 2014 without mentioning either the Rosetta spacecraft or the Philae lander. They have both accomplished feats in science which could have only been dreamed of. Rosetta has been in space for 10 years in pursuit of the 67PN comet which is travelling through our Solar System. This year it finally reached it and is now moving relative to it, becoming the first object to rendezvous with a comet. But Rosetta is not the only one who’s kept busy. After rendezvousing with the comet, Rosetta released Philae, a small robot whose objective was to land on 67P. And so it did, although it was a bumpy ride. Unfortunately, it ran out of battery soon after the landing, making it impossible for it to analyse the comet and take samples; its original purpose. But 67P is supposed to pass close to the Sun at some point, which might reactivate Philae and help it complete its mission

4. Dusty Waves

primordial waves

The graph showing what scientists thought were primordial waves, the proof of inflation theory, but is actualy dust

There was another fascinating discovery this year, in which a special type of wave was detected coming from space, with massive implications. Called primordial waves, they are theorised to have been produced during the Big Bang, and if their existence was confirmed, the theory of inflation, which states that the universes started expanding just after it was created would be proved. What were supposed to be these waves were then detected, and scientists were ecstatic. The Big Bang is one of the most confusing aspects of science, and this discovery could help clarify it greatly. But again, after further investigation, the results did not look too good. The alleged ‘primordial waves’ were most likely just dust in the Universe, interfering with the results and creating false hopes.

5. Young Calls Young

blood

Blood could hold secrets for eternal youth

In a truly zombie-like procedure, scientists sewed young and old rats together so they created blood vessels between each other and shared blood. After some time, they investigated how tissues had grown and developed in the two rats and the results were utterly fascinating. The old rats had created more neural connections in their brains, their muscles had healed faster, and their heart muscles had been rejuvenated. However, the young mice suffered the opposite effects.

But scientists concentrated on the positive side, on what chemicals in the young rats caused these changes in the old ones and detected a specific protein, GDF11, which seemed to activate stem cells and cause all these beneficial effects. They also discovered chemicals in older mice which did the opposite: they made stem cells react slower, which in turn deteriorated the health of the younger rats. The next step is finding the equivalent proteins in humans, so that older people can be healed from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or arthritis.

 

Stay tuned for the more of the most interesting scientific events of 2014 in the epic conclusion: 2014 Science Highlights: Part 2.

Planet Plant


As populations grow, extending humanity to other planets is an increasingly viable solution to overpopulation. But for us to live on other planets, we would need a stable environment and community, which inevitably involves plants. Plants are the starters of the food chain: without their ways of converting light energy from the Sun into chemical energy, we would not be able to survive.

But growing plants in, for example, the moon, presents many problems. For one, there is a very weak gravity. In previous experiments, plants grown in microgravity have not done too well: they grow in weird shapes, develop unusual genetic mutations and produce seeds which don’t germinate.

However, a new method seems to solve these problems. It uses a capsule where the plant lives, and the soil that it needs to survive is kept ‘down’ using a net. The container, designed by scientists at University of Wisconsin-Madison, controls all abiotic factors: light, temperature, moisture, carbon dioxide and oxygen concentration… and has been sent into space to rest in the ISS (International Space Station) for months. However, it has been monitored from millions of kilometres away in the university itself.

This new model has proven much more successful than other attempts, and the plant sent, a Arabidopsis thaliana, has grown perfectly well, albeit with some oddly shaped branches. In fact, a control experiment set up on Earth showed that the two plants were not actually that different from each other. But that doesn’t actually matter too much; what’s important is that the plant in space has produced viable seeds which can germinate and grow into new plants. This is precisely what future populations living in other planets want, as this means they can have a sustainable, self-renewing farm.

Another important factor is soil quality. Both the moon and Mars are made out of basaltic and volcanic material, so experiments here in Earth imitating conditions there use volcanic soil.

space

The future?

Most have generated fairly positive results: without adding any new nutrients, volcanic soil by itself was able to grow a variety of plants for 50 days. The only problem was water: most planets in our Solar System don’t actually contain water, so the water necessary to grow the plants would have to be provided by the astronautic farmers.

As always, more research is needed, but the prospect of growing plants in space to feed large populations does not seem too far from the nearby future. And the research put into this objective could have repercussions and applications in the present, for example, in plant engineering to maximise crop yields.

A Bacterial Lunch


The secrets to weight loss may not lie on strange synthetic chemicals or unhealthy new fad diets, but actually in some simple bacteria we’ve known for as long as we’ve been born.

The bacteria in our intestines help us digest the food we intake; from carbohydrates to proteins to fats. But there’s something we humans can’t actually digest: fibre, so instead we use it to push the rest of the food through our guts and prevent constipation. However, since we should eat plenty of fibre, some bacteria use the excess and digest it too, and when doing so, release a substance scientists call propionate. This chemical triggers a reaction in our cells which results in them releasing a specific type of hormones: satiety hormones, such as PYY and GLP-1. As their name suggest, they are used by the body to make people feel ‘full’, by sending messages to the brain telling it to stop eating. In people, it usually takes a decent amount of fibre to trigger this response, so the person has to ingest a large amount of food before this reaction happens.

bacteria lunch

Don’t they look delicious?

But in developed countries, there is an excess of food, so people over indulge and end up over weight or obese. To stop this, scientists have been working with these bacteria in our guts and have come up with a possible solution.

In the form of IPE (inulin-propionate ester), propionate is in a concentration 8 times as large as that of a normal dinner, high enough to trigger the “I’m full” response despite not eating enough fibre. In theory, if a person takes this at some point during the day, they will produce the satiety hormones that will tell the body they are full so the person won’t feel the impulse to eat. The objective of the drug is therefore to reduce weight gain by reducing food intake.

To test this drug, some interesting experiments were carried out. The most curious one consisted of having two groups of people: one taking IPE and one not (the control) face a buffet and an open invitation to eat as much as they wanted (a.k.a. heaven). People with IPE in their system ate 14% less than those without IPE. And if the drug was given to people leading normal lives for six months, those taking the drug ate on average 9% less than those with no drug.

So although eating bacteria’s remains doesn’t sound like the most appealing plate in the book, it could produce long-term improvements in our health.

Smoking Out Y


When people smoke, not only do they inhale burnt pieces of paper which damage their lungs, or have tar accumulate inside of them, which is likely to cause lung cancer, or inject nicotine into their bloodstream, which increases heart rate and blood pressure; it also causes the Y chromosome to eventually disappear. Of course, this only affects males, since the presence of a Y chromosome determines you’re male in gender, but for women smoking is still unhealthy and should be stopped.

Chemicals in tobacco affect this chromosome during cell division or mitosis when the chromosomes are being separated to either sides of the cell. Damage to the chromosome can build up until it eventually disappears. The study, carried out in Sweden, showed that people (men, specifically) who smoked had 33% more chances of loosing their Y chromosome compared to men who didn’t smoke.

However, it has been widely thought for many years that the Y chromosome is so small (in fact, it’s the smallest out of our 46 chromosomes), that its loss wouldn’t have too dire consequences. Past experiments on cells show that they can survive just as well without said chromosome. But new studies show that the lack of this chromosome, although not directly fatal, can shorten life duration and causes an increase in the likelihood of developing cancer. Lung cancer or any other cancer having to do with the respiratory system aside, male smokers are twice as likely to develop cancer as female smokers.

A possible explanation for this is that the Y chromosome contains tumour suppressing genes, so if it disappears, tumours are not going to be controlled and inhibited and therefore will be able to reproduce uncontrollably, causing cancer.

The newest research shows that this effect changes intensity depending on the dose of tobacco smoked. Obviously, the more tobacco you smoke, the more likely you are to suffer from its negative effects. But there’s a silver lining: this process is reversible. If you were to stop smoking, your cells would stop taking damage and after some time they’d be repaired, so you would have the same percentage of healthy cells with a Y chromosome as a non-smoker.

y chromosome

The Y chromosome is more important than you think in the fight against cancer

 

XNA Alternative


DNA and RNA have always been considered miracle molecules thanks to their ability to self-replicate and create life. Everyone thought that they were the only molecules that could carry information on how to code for an organism and pass this down for generations. But what if I told you there were other molecules capable of doing the same thing?

This group of molecules is called XNAs (Xeno Nucleic Acids) and they all are a polynucleotide strands but each with a different repeating monomer. They still have a base and a phosphate group attached; what changes is the sugar in them. Whilst DNA uses deoxyribose and RNA uses ribose, XNA can use a wide variety of sugars, like theorose, or other unrelated chemicals, like peptides.

DNA XNA

This is a normal DNA strand – XNA is the same but with a different sugar in the nucleotide

Not only do they copy the structure of a nucleotide and therefore form a nucleic acid, but they can also store information in the form of bases. However, to make XNA carry bases in a desired order, scientists have to use an enzyme that copies the coding from a DNA strand and passes it onto an XNA strand. Once there, another enzyme can read the bases in the XNA and copy them onto DNA, and if needed, back to XNA. This means that an old XNA can technically pass information to a new XNA molecule, even if it uses an intermediate molecule; this process is basically evolution.

But this discovery is from back 2012. The current news involves XNA being able to act as enzymes, apart from encoding possible genetic information. They still can’t form copies of themselves in the traditional sense, but they can manipulate RNA and even add XNA fragments to an XNA strand. The fact these molecules are enzymes and can modify themselves to some extent makes it more feasible that at some point they will be able to self-replicate, and behave just like DNA did, to evolve into a new type of life.

It is also further proof showing that XNA is a viable alternative to both DNA and RNA, and that the reality that all living organisms we know use these nucleic acids could be arbitrary. In fact, it could be perfectly possible than in other galaxies, organisms use XNAs instead of DNA. Of course, this is only a theory, and we have to take into account the conditions of an environment without any life. RNA and DNA could have developed because they were more likely to appear in the first place, for a reason unbeknownst to us yet.