Science in 2015: Rethinking the universe

A cure for disease and hunger. Water on Mars. A new human ancestor. This year, scientists have witnessed amazing breakthroughs. Which will be the ones to reshape humanity’s story?

In April this year, Chinese researchers published a paper which stunned the scientific community: they had used a new technology called Crispr to alter the genes of a human embryo for the first time.

The technique uses a protein called Cas9 to quickly, cheaply and accurately ‘cut-and-paste’ DNA. There are serious ethical questions about its application — but scientists have already used it to reverse blindness, stop the growth of cancer cells, and create cells which are ‘impervious to Aids’. Suddenly the dream of curing disease may be within our grasp — and if it is used on crops, eradicating hunger may not be far behind.

But George Church, a leading Harvard researcher, warns that scientists must ponder the unintended consequences as well as the intended. ‘I’m afraid of everything,’ he admits. And this from the same man who hopes to use Crispr to resurrect a woolly mammoth.

In July, just months after China’s gene-editing experiment, science made headlines again — this time with the first close-up photographs of Pluto. New Horizons, a probe which left Earth in 2006, had finally reached its destination. The images it beamed home astonished Nasa; the dwarf-planet is home to vast fields of methane, ice-mountains as tall as Mt Etna, and even snow. Just over three months later, evidence of water was spotted on Mars — meaning it may, one day soon, be habitable.

But as some considered our future, others were looking into our past. A team of ‘underground astronauts’ in South Africa had excavated the bones of a new ancestor, the Homo naledi. It’s ‘weird as hell’ said one paleoanthropologist, Fred Grine. It has a large, human-like skull and versatile hands — but a tiny brain, and ape-like shoulders for climbing. And it is not particularly old — finding its place in humanity’s family tree could transform the story of our past.

And those are just some of the plethora of 2015’s groundbreaking discoveries — only yesterday, physicists at Cern announced they may have found a ‘mysterious’ new sub-atomic particle. Across the science disciplines, there is a feeling that we are on the brink of something amazing.

Giant leaps

The new frontiers in space exploration are the beginning of a new era for mankind, say space enthusiasts. The future is unpredictable — but this could be one way of ensuring survival. In 1969 we landed on the moon. Who knows how far we will have travelled by 2069?

Space exploration is all well and good, say others. But no matter where a handful of humans ends up, the precise micro-science of gene editing will affect the millions they have left on Earth. Curing the plagues of hunger and disease will transform the very essence of every single one of us.

You Decide

  1. What would be a more important event for humanity: a colony on Mars, or curing disease?
  2. With such game-changing discoveries in play, who should decide how they are used: governments, businesses or scientists?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have access to Crispr gene-editing technology. List five ways you would use it to make the world a better place.
  2. Look for another important scientific discovery from 2015 which has not made it into this story (you can use the links under Become An Expert to help you). Leave a comment explaining why you think it matters.

Some People Say...

“Science never solves a problem without creating ten more.”

George Bernard Shaw

What do you think?

Q & A

I find science really boring.
Science is a broad church — there is sure to be something that captures your imagination! As seen in 2015 alone, it can involve the outer reaches of the solar system, the environment here on Earth, or tiny particles which influence the entire universe. The work can be technical, repetitive, and frustrating when you cannot find an answer. But there is much left to discover, and the rewards of making a new discovery are immeasurable.
You’ve convinced me. How do I become a scientist?
Keep studying science! The work you do in your school years will form the foundation of your knowledge, and lead you on to a science subject at university. Keep an open mind, and stay curious about the world around you. In the coming years, there is sure to be lots for you to do.

Word Watch

Hunger
Crispr technology could create new crops which are resistant to pests or which grow in inhospitable environments. It could even produce fruit with added health benefits for malnourished populations.
Unintended consequences
Changing the DNA of a plant or animal is permanent. If that organism reproduces, it could change the species permanently as well. When it comes to genetic diseases, many see genetic intervention as a good thing. But it is a risky business — and there is no way of predicting the knock-on effects.
Woolly mammoth
Earlier this year, Church and his team used Crispr to insert mammoth genes into elephant DNA. One day, he could use it to entirely reproduce a mammoth embryo, and grow it in an elephant’s womb.
Dwarf-planet
A few months after New Horizons launched, Pluto was downgraded to a ‘dwarf-planet’. This is a satellite of the sun which is not yet massive enough to have cleared all other objects in its orbit.
Cern
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as Cern) is based in Switzerland. It uses the Large Hadron Collider for physics experiments.

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