Featured image above: AI progress makes history – #2 of the top stories in STEM from 2016.
1. New way to cut up DNA
On October 28, a team of Chinese scientists made history when they injected the first adult human with cells genetically modified via CRISPR, a low-cost DNA editing mechanism.
Part of a clinical trial to treat lung cancer, this application of CRISPR is expected to be the first of many in the global fight against poor health and disease.
2. AI reads scientific papers, distils findings, plays Go
Artificially intelligent systems soared to new heights in 2016, taking it to number 2 on our list of top stories. A company called Iris created a new AI system able to read scientific papers, understand their core concepts and find other papers offering relevant information.
In the gaming arena, Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo program became the first AI system to beat world champion, Lee Se-dol, at the boardgame Go. Invented in China, Go is thought to be at least 2,500 years old. It offers so many potential moves that until this year, human intuition was able to prevail over the computing power of technology in calculating winning strategies.
3. Scientists find the missing link in evolution
For a long time, the mechanism by which organisms evolved from single cells to multicellular entities remained a mystery. This year, researches pinpointed a molecule called GK-PID, which underwent a critical mutation some 800 million years ago.
With this single mutation, GK-PID gained the ability to string chromosomes together in a way that allowed cells to divide without becoming cancerous – a fundamental enabler for the evolution of all modern life. GK-PID remains vital to successful tissue growth in animals today.
4. Data can be stored for 13.8 billion years
All technology is subject to degradation from environmental influences, including heat. This means that until recently, humans have been without any form of truly long-term data storage.
Scientists from the University of Southampton made the top stories of 2016 when they developed a disc that can theoretically survive for longer than the universe has been in existence. Made of nano-structured glass, with the capacity to hold 360TB of data, and stable up to 1,000°C, the disc could survive for over 13.8 billion years.
5. Mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef
The most severe bleaching ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef occurred this year. Heavy loss of coral occurred across a 700km stretch of the northern reef, which had previously been the most pristine area of the 2300km world heritage site.
North of Port Douglas, an average of 67% of shallow-water corals became bleached in 2016. Scientists blame sea temperature rise, which was sharpest in the early months of the year, and which resulted in a devastating loss of algae that corals rely on for food.
6. Climate protocol ratified – but Stephen hawking warns it may be too late
On the 4 November 2016, the Paris Agreement became effective. An international initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and control climate change, the Paris Agreement required ratification by at least 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions in order to become operational.
So far 117 countries have joined the cause, with Australia among them. But some of the world’s greatest minds, including Stephen Hawking, believe time is running out if the human race is to preserve its planet.
7. Young people kick some serious science goals
A group of high schoolers from Sydney Grammar succeeded in recreating a vital drug used to treat deadly parasites, for a fraction of the market price.
The drug, known as Daraprim, has been available for 63 years and is used in the treatment of malaria and HIV. There was public outcry in September when Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of the drug from US$13.50 to US$750.
In collaboration with the University of Sydney and the Open Source Malaria Consortium, a year 11 class at Sydney Grammar created the drug at a cost of only $2 per dose, and made their work freely available online.
8. Gravitational waves detected
Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity was confirmed in February, when scientists observed gravitational waves making ripples in space and time.
Gravitational waves are thought to occur when two black holes merge into a single, much larger, black hole. They carry important information about their origins, and about gravity, that helps physicists better understand the universe.
The gravitational waves were observed by twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory detectors in Louisiana and Washington. Australian scientists helped to build some of the instruments used in their detection.
9. Moving away from chemotherapy
Researchers at the University College London made a leap forward in cancer treatment when they found a way to identify cancer markers present across all cells that have grown and mutated from a primary tumour. They also succeeded in identifying immune cells able to recognise these markers and destroy the cancerous cells.
This breakthrough opens the door not only for better immuno-oncology treatments to replace the toxic drugs involved in chemotherapy, but also for the development of personalised treatments that are more effective for each individual.
10. New prime number discovered
The seventh largest prime number ever found was discovered in November. Over 9.3 million digits long, the number 10223*231172165+1 was identified by researchers who borrowed the computer power of thousands of collaborators around the world to search through possibilities, via a platform called PrimeGrid.
This discovery also takes mathematicians one step closer to solving the Sierpinski problem, which asks for the smallest, positive, odd number ‘k’ in the formula k x 2n + 1, where all components of the formula are non-prime numbers. After the discovery of the newest prime number, only five possibilities for the Sierpinski number remain.
– Heather Catchpole & Elise Roberts
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Have a story we missed? Contact us to let us know your picks of the top stories in STEM in 2016.