Science saw several major discoveries with the potential to change our lives and our very understanding of the universe as a whole.
Here are our top scientific breakthroughs of 2017.
SPINACH LEAF TRANSFORMED INTO HUMAN HEART TISSUE
Scientists at Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute brainstormed ideas for solving the critical problem of not enough donor organs available. That lunch led to the successful transformation of a spinach leaf into beating human heart tissue, a significant proof of concept that could lead to major breakthroughs, such as grafting damaged heart tissue. To create the spinach-heart hybrid, the team stripped green spinach leaves with detergent, which left behind a cellulose matrix loosely similar to the vascular structure of the heart. Then they seeded the vacated areas with cardiac muscle cells—and waited. Five days later, the cells began to beat.
SECRET VOID IN GREAT PYRAMID AT GIZA
Scientists have found a previously unknown area in the Great Pyramid at Giza for the first time since the 1800s. Using muon radiography, which detects the subatomic particles called muons that are constantly raining down on Earth, the Scan pyramids project team detected a 100-foot-long cavity that could be a chamber, a ramp used to move blocks, or any number of other spaces. Muon particles pass through empty spaces more easily than they do solid areas, so muon detectors allow researchers to map solid and empty spaces inside a structure.
NEUTRON CAR COLLISION DETECTED
In October 2017, astronomers detected something never seen before: light and gravitational waves from the same event. That event was the collision observed two months earlier, also for the first time of two neutron stars 130 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra. The crash produced a massive explosion of energy and revealed these collisions as the source of heavy elements like gold, plutonium, and uranium. Most meaningful perhaps is the way the event was detected in the first place: by the observation of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time first predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 and observed directly just two years ago. The discovery propels us into the era of gravitational wave astronomy—and closer to uncovering the secrets of the universe.
ARTIFICIAL WOMB KEEP FETAL LAMBS ALIVE
Scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia successfully built an artificial womb that kept fetal lambs alive and developing normally, a breakthrough that could someday lead to saving premature babies born as early as 23 weeks. A clear plastic bag (dubbed a Biobag) filled with synthetic amniotic fluid serves as the “womb.” A machine outside the bag attaches to the lamb’s umbilical cord, serving as a placenta by providing nutrition and oxygen and removing waste. The research team hopes to test the artificial womb on premature human babies within five years.
DISCOVERY OF SUPER EARTH
In April, scientists at Harvard’s MEarth Project announced a major finding:the discovery of an exo planet that gives us the best opportunity to find alien life. Planet LHS 1140b is rocky, temperate, and just 40 light-years away (practically next door in astronomical terms), where it transits a star smaller than Earth. Among other factors, astronomers believe the planet could have liquid water on its surface, a necessity for life (as we know it) to exist. More: Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer at The Franklin Institute, breaks down the Top 10 Astronomy & Space Science Discoveries of 2017.
INVENTION PULLS WATER OUT OF THIN AIR
This proof-of-concept device, built at MIT, demonstrates a new system for extracting drinking water from the air. The sequence of images at right shows how droplets of water accumulate over time as the inside temperature increases while exposed to the sun.
Using a special material called MOF and the power of the sun, scientists at MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a way to pull water out of dry air. The invention could pave the way for a solution to water scarcity, a critical problem for nearly half the people on Earth. The key component of the device is a metal-organic framework (MOF), a lattice of organic molecules and metal atoms. A kilogram of the customized MOF used in the device can pull several liters of water out of low-humidity air in desert regions.
DNA EDITED IN HUMAN EMBRYOS
An international team of scientists has successfully used a new gene editing technique to alter the DNA of several human embryos, correcting a defect that causes heart failure in young people. The accomplishment, the first using viable human embryos, could lead to the ability to eliminate genetic diseases in utero. Critics, however, oppose the creation of “genetically modified children,” leading to ethical debates and an uncertain future for the research.
ATTACKING CANCER WITH THEIR OWN BLOOD CELLS
The treatment, called CAR T – CELL therapy, treats cancer in a completely new way by removing a patient’s cells, re-engineering them, and then re-inserting them into the body to go after cancer cells. In August the FDA approved Novartis’ Kymriah, a treatment that uses the body’s immune system to attack pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Novartis said the approach costs $475,000 per person.
In October, another kind of CAR T Treatment Yescarta, was approved for adults to treat the blood cancer known as aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
BABIES IN ICU GETS THEIR OWN BODY SCANNING MACHINES
The Embrace neo natal MRI system is the first one approved as safe enough to put in the same room as premature babies who are being treated in the hospital. Before the babies are imaged, they’re swaddled in a special suit and get MRI earplugs. Then the newborns are laid inside a tube so doctors can gather information about their condition.
The scanner looks kind of like the pneumatic tube systems at a drive-thru bank. It’s fully enclosed, which means the other tiny humans in the hospital ward don’t have to worry about exposure to powerful magnets or radiation.
ROBOTS STARTED DOING BACK FLIPS
Boston Dynamics, the robotics company that Soft bank bought from Google in June, showed off one of its most impressive robots yet this fall. A humanoid named Atlas can now hop, jump and back flip around the house.
Another humanoid named Sophia became the first robot citizen this year in Saudi Arabia. But she’s not a convincing stand-in for face-to-face human interaction yet.
A RECYCLABLE ROCKET BOOSTER THAT DOESN’T CRASH AFTER USE
Boosters are usually the most expensive part of a multi-stage rocket launch, and traditionally, they end up at the bottom of the ocean after a single use. But SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is banking on the reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy Boster systems, which can be re-used relatively quickly and cheaply, saving $18 million a launch.
The first time Musk managed to salvage one of these reusable rockets was on March 30th, when a Falcon 9 delivered a satellite into orbit, and then its first stage booster fell back into the atmosphere and landed itself on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
IMPARTING PIG PARTS IN HUMANS
If successful, the process of implanting some pig organs into people could be a big win for the more than 118,000 patients on the waiting list for transplants in the US. In August, Cambridge-based biotech startup e Genesis announce that the company used the CRISPR gene editing tool to engineer pigs that won’t transmit key viruses into humans, a major hurdle in the effort to safely use pig parts in people.
In another CRISPR move this year, biologists in Oregon successfully edited the DNA of viable human embryos. That could be a first step toward one day editing out genetic diseases and correcting mutations in unborn humans. But some fear that if approved, the edits could alter the course of our species’ evolution, or lead to “designer babies.”
NEW GENE THERAPY TREATMENT FOR BLIND PEOPLE
The cure for a form of hereditary blindness called leber congenital amaurosis is the first gene therapy approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for an inherited disease.
The treatment, called Luxturna, is a one-time virus dose that gets injected into a patient’s retina. The corrected gene in the virus taps out the flawed, blindness-inducing gene in the eye, and produces a key vision-producing protein that patients with the disease normally can’t.
People start noticing a difference in their sight within a month. In clinical trials of the treatment, 13 out of 20 patients saw positive results. The treatment could cost as much as $1 million for a single injection.
FOUND A NEW CONTINENT IN SOUTH PACIFIC
The lost land of Zealandia sits on the ocean floor between New Zealand and New Caledonia. It wasn’t always a sunken land, researchers have found fossils that suggested novel kinds of plants and organisms once lived there.
An international team of 32 scientists has thus found a new continent in the South Pacific.