Mars, meat, monkeys: the best science of 2018

Ground-breaking: A subsurface lake on Mars; a new “slaughter-free” steak; Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua.

Will they change the world? 2018 has been a year of fascinating experiments and mind-blowing discoveries in science. We take a look at five of the best from the past year…

1/ Water on Mars. For decades, scientists searched and found only ice on the red planet. Until July, that is, when the European Space Agency detected a vast lake of liquid water beneath the planet’s south polar ice cap.

The discovery boosts hopes that we may one day find past or present microbial life on Mars, which would prove that life is not unique to Earth.

2/ Lab-grown meat. Also known as “slaughter-free” meat, it can be grown from animal cells in a laboratory. Researchers hope to satisfy the planet’s growing taste for meat without the huge environmental and animal welfare consequences of modern farming.

Lab-grown meat is not available to the public yet, but companies are racing to get it there. The first lab-grown steak has just been produced in Israel.

3/ Cloned monkeys. In January, scientists in China successfully cloned two macaques, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, using the same technique that was used to create Dolly the Sheep. The primates will be used to study diseases. In creating them, scientists overcame a major “technical barrier” to cloning humans — although they insist there are no plans to do so.

In the year that saw the world’s first gene-edited babies, genetic science is set to pose more moral conundrums in the future.

4/ Injectable robots. These nanorobots, 1,000-times smaller than a human hair, can be injected into the body. Once in, they target tumours by cutting off their supply of fresh blood. The astounding technology has successfully treated cancer in mice and pigs, but scientists have not tried it out on humans yet.

5/ Neutrinos. These “ghost particles”, which can pass through other matter, fascinate scientists. When one crashed into Antarctica, physicists traced its path across the universe to find its source: a blazar four-billion light-years away, firing high-energy particles out into space.

The discovery helped scientists understand more about the workings of these elusive particles, which could one day let us explore parts of deep space that cannot be seen with telescopes. It could even transform how we understand the universe.

Will these discoveries save the world?

The world of tomorrow

Yes! say some. In this list alone, we have discoveries that could soon cure cancer and save the environment from destruction. Science has always made the world safer and more prosperous. The possibilities of human ingenuity are endless and expanding at every moment.

Don’t get ahead of yourself, respond others. Science on its own isn’t enough: it’s governments that truly hold the power. For example, scientists can produce as many studies warning of climate change catastrophe as they want, but the science isn’t worth much if Donald Trump doesn’t listen.

You Decide

  1. Who has more power to change the world, scientists or politicians?
  2. Which of these five discoveries will do the most good for the world?

Activities

  1. Write your own definition of the word “science”. Compare your definitions in groups. Are they the same or different, and in what way?
  2. Research another scientific discovery from 2018 that you think should be on this list. Write two short paragraphs explaining what happened and why it is important, like the ones above.

Some People Say...

“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Wernher von Braun

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many areas of science have accelerated rapidly in 2018. For example, in genetic science, monkeys were cloned for the first time, and gene-edited human babies were born. In physics, scientists got closer to understanding mysterious particles called neutrinos, while medical advances like nanorobots could one day treat cancer in humans. Lab-grown meat could save the environment and end cruel farming, and we found water on Mars for the first time.
What do we not know?
What the future holds. Cloning and gene-editing can be very dangerous for their subjects, and raise ethical dilemmas that we will be grappling with for decades to come. Lab-grown meat could offer a way to help our endangered environment, but we don’t yet know if it will take off. Science is always changing.

Word Watch

Polar ice cap
Like Earth, the north and south poles of Mars are covered in ice caps.
Microbial
A tiny form of life that is usually not visible to the naked eye. If we ever find life on Mars, it will probably be microbial rather than complex life, like animals and humans.
Environmental
Scientists have described a non-meat diet as “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth”. Agriculture plays a big role in greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and water pollution.
Dolly the Sheep
Dolly was the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell. She was born in 1996 and died of lung disease and severe arthritis in 2003.
Primates
A group of animals including lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans.
Babies
Chinese scientist He Jiankui claims that he edited the DNA of twin embryos so that they will never be able to contract HIV. Gene-editing on humans is banned in most countries.
Blazar
A type of supermassive black hole that fires particles in the direction of Earth. If it is not facing Earth, it is called a quasar.
Elusive
Difficult to find or pin down.