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6 times science saved 2017

2017 - a year considered to be more tragic than 2016, a feat no one thought possible. The news, as always, has plagued us with horror stories. Natural disasters, man-made catastrophes, apocalyptic scenarios. There’s an easy way to escape the pull of the negative media black hole however – just read the science news. In 2017, as in 2016 - and every year since humans began trying to work things out, we have seen some pretty mind-blowing scientific discoveries. Using Altmetrics top 100 most talked about scientific papers of 2017 we thought we’d close out the year by highlighting some of the amazing things we’ve learned about in the past 12 months.

  1. We are closer than ever to correcting inherited genetic mutations that cause disease

A landmark piece of research published in the journal Nature in August revealed that scientists had used a molecular Swiss army knife to correct a genetic fault in human embryos. They used the recently discovered CRISPR gene-editing technique to cut out the faulty part of a gene that causes heart defects and replace it with the correct version. Although this work is still in its infancy, it offers a glimpse at a potential future where inherited genetic conditions might be removed from the population.

Exciting? Absolutely. Inherited faults to genes can significantly increase your risk of certain cancers so perhaps one day these faults could be fixed. But there are other challenges to consider beside the science – even at this stage the research is causing serious moral and ethical debates.

  1. 3D printed ovaries made sterile mice fertile again

In a ground-breaking study earlier this year, scientists used 3D printing to create bioprosthetic ovaries. They implanted these ovaries into sterile mice and were able to restore full ovarian function including the birth of baby mice through natural mating. This is pretty amazing, and also a very exciting step towards reversing infertility in women. Many cancer treatments can impair the function of the ovaries and can cause infertility so this new technology has potential to repair the damage done by the side-effects of these life-saving medications.

  1. Google AI can diagnose skin cancer

This year it was reported that scientists have been able to teach a powerful AI tool, developed by Google, to diagnose skin cancer from images as accurately as a doctor. They started by feeding the AI picture of everyday objects – cats, dogs, chairs etc.- until it started to learn patterns. Once it was ‘educated’ they started to feed in images of different skin conditions so that it could learn how to differentiate between different disorders. Eventually, they tested its ability to detect skin cancer against a human doctor’s diagnosis and found that the AI was just as good. The researchers say that with 6.3 billion smartphones predicted to be in use by 2021, this tool could provide low-cost universal access to diagnostic care via an app.

  1. On your bike…

Not as exciting as some of the other findings on this list, yet still an important one! A study in the British Medical Journal back in March reported that cycling to work could reduce your risk of an early death by as much as 40%. According to the study, which involved data from over 250,000 people in the UK, those that said they commuted to work by bicycle had a 45% lower risk of cancer and 46% lower risk of cardiovascular disease. So if you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution…

  1. Scientists encoded a movie into DNA

Yes, this actually happened. But why? Well DNA can pack a lot of data into a tiny space. Someone actually did a calculation and worked out that the DNA in each cell contains storage space equivalent to around 1.5GB of data. That’s about a CD’s worth of data compressed into the head of a pin. The scientists used CRISPR gene-editing technology to insert a coded version of a movie into the DNA of a bacterial cell, which they were then able to recall by analysing the bacterial DNA. It’s rather complicated but there’s a good explanation of the science and possible applications here.

  1. And just in time for the winter holidays (if you’re in the northern hemisphere)…

Evidence of a human-sized penguin has been found in the form of a 60-million-year-old fossil found in New Zealand. Estimated to weigh around 100kg and standing 1.77 meters tall, this flightless beast probably wouldn’t look as cute as its modern day counterpart. Nevertheless, the finding reveals some interesting things about penguin evolution. And who doesn’t like penguins?!

Science Communications Manager

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