In depth

12 recent scientific breakthroughs

From photos of the infant universe to an energy advancement that could save the planet

Scientists in many fields have been getting little attention over the last two years or so as the world focused on the emergency push to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. But labs and researchers have remained busy, recently reporting a dizzying series of major discoveries and achievements: 

1. Nuclear fusion

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced in December that they had produced the first fusion reaction that created more energy than was used to start it. The long-elusive achievement marked a major breakthrough in harnessing the process that fuels the sun. "This milestone moves us one significant step closer" to "powering our society" with zero-carbon fusion energy, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said. 

Fusion involves pushing together two nuclei of a lightweight element, such as hydrogen, at a colossal speed, forcing them to fuse. The leftover mass is converted into an enormous amount of energy, according to Einstein's formula E = mc2. Unlike fission, in which atoms are split, fusion requires small amounts of ordinary fuel — the amount of hydrogen in a glass of water could provide enough energy for one person's lifetime — and does not create much radioactive waste, which is why it's been called "the holy grail for the future of nuclear power." 

2. The James Webb Telescope 

Popular Science magazine this year named NASA's James Webb Space Telescope the Innovation of the Year in aerospace technology. Unlike the Hubble space telescope, which scanned the heavens from low Earth orbit, the Webb telescope is camped hundreds of thousands of miles farther out, sitting in Earth's shadow, where it is permanently blocked from sunlight. Its view further protected by a multi-layer sunshield, it sits at the temperature (-370 degrees Fahrenheit) best suited for its infrared sight.

As a result, Popular Science says, the $10 billion JWST "can see deep into fields of forming stars. It can peer 13 billion years back in time at ancient galaxies, still in their nursery. It can peek at exoplanets, seeing them directly where astronomers would have once had to reconstruct meager traces of their existence. It can teach us about how those stars and galaxies came together from primordial matter, something Hubble could only glimpse."

3. Transplant promise

A group of Yale scientists reported in the journal Nature this summer that they succeeded in reviving cells in the hearts, liver, kidneys, and brains of pigs that had been lying dead in a lab for an hour. The researchers accomplished the feat by using a device much like a heart-lung machine to pump a custom-made solution, dubbed OrganEx, into the pigs' bodies. The pigs' hearts started beating and sent the solution through their veins. 

The pigs weren't revived, but their organs started functioning again, and they "never got stiff like a typical dead pig," The New York Times reported. The researchers, according to the Times, hope their breakthrough eventually will help increase the supply of human organs available for transplant by letting doctors get viable organs from bodies long after death. The technology also might be useful in limiting damage to hearts from heart attacks, and to brains from strokes. 

The researchers say their goals are to one day increase the supply of human organs for transplant by allowing doctors to obtain viable organs long after death. And, they say, they hope their technology might also be used to prevent severe damage to hearts after a devastating heart attack or brains after a major stroke.

4. A universal flu vaccine

U.S. public health officials have long warned Americans to brace for another possible COVID-19 surge as winter hits and families gather for the holidays. Indeed, the nation is facing a "tripledemic," with COVID-19 cases rising, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) overloading many hospitals, and the 2022-23 flu season building into what could be the worst in a decade. As of early December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already recorded 4,500 flu deaths. 

Fighting the flu represents a new challenge every year because influenza viruses are constantly evolving. Some years, the vaccines are effective. Sometimes they miss the mark. But now Scott Hensley at the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues have created a flu vaccine based on mRNA molecules — the same technique Moderna, and Pfizer, along with its partner BioNTech, used to make their widely used COVID-19 vaccines. The vaccine has produced antibody responses against all 20 known strains of influenza A and B in tests on mice, with the effectiveness lasting four months. The results were similar in tests on ferrets, fueling hopes the universal vaccine could work in humans, too.

5. Changing an asteroid's trajectory

If you've watched Armageddon or Deep Impact or some other movie about an asteroid threatening to wipe out life on Earth, relax. NASA this year proved with its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission that it has the ability to deflect a giant space rock off a collision course with our planet. NASA sent the 1,100-pound DART spacecraft slamming into a 525-foot-diameter asteroid, Dimorphos, at 14,000 miles per hour to see whether the impact force would be enough to change its trajectory. 

Dimorphos, which didn't actually threaten Earth, was orbiting around a larger parent asteroid, Didymos, every 11 hours and 55 minutes before the crash. After DART slammed into Dimorphos on Sept. 26, astronomers clocked its orbit time at 11 hours and 23 minutes, 32 minutes shorter than before, signaling a significant change in its path. "All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it's the only one we have," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "This mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us."

6. AI for artists

Artificial intelligence is opening up new possibilities for businesses and households, and now new text-to-image generators are giving everyone from artists to urban planners to reconstructive surgeons a new tool to help them visualize ideas. DALL-E 2, which Open AI released in July, looks at hundreds of millions of captioned images to turn text prompts written by users into images.

Mark Chen, the lead researcher on DALL-E 2, told The Atlantic that image generators like DALL-E 2 aim to "democratize" art. "This is the most exciting new technology in the AI space since natural-language translation," Atlantic deputy editor Ross Anderson said.

7. New vaccines to fight malaria

Malaria, found in more than 90 countries, kills an estimated 627,000 people every year. Vaccines could help reduce or eliminate the toll, but scientists have struggled to develop a highly effective one. This year, though, the technology used to create mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 has helped a research team led by George Washington University develop two experimental mRNA vaccine candidates that are highly effective in reducing malaria infection and transmission, according to a study published in December in npj Vaccines, an open-access scientific journal in the Nature Portfolio.

"Malaria elimination will not happen overnight but such vaccines could potentially banish malaria from many parts of the world," says Nirbhay Kumar, a professor of global health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

8. Cancer treatments advance

Scientists reported progress on several fronts in the battle against cancer. A team led by Chris Jones, a professor of Pediatric Brain Tumor Biology at the Institute of Cancer Research, worked with the company BenevolentAI to use artificial intelligence tools to come up with a new drug combination to fight diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, an incurable childhood brain cancer. The proposed combination extended survival in mice by as much as 14 percent and has been tested in a small group of children.

In another potential breakthrough, Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr. of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center wrote a paper published in June in the New England Journal of Medicine describing a treatment that resulted in complete remission in all 18 rectal cancer patients who took the drug. "I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer," Dr. Diaz said.

9. Injecting human cells into rats' brains to study psychiatric disorders

Scientists from Stanford University successfully injected human nerve cells into the brains of newborn lab rats and found that they formed connections with the animals' own brain cells, guiding their behavior, according to a study published in the journal Nature. The human cells wound up making up one-sixth of the rats' brains. The cluster, known as a brain organoid, then develops in ways similar to a human brain, which could help researchers understand more about schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, bipolar disorder, and other neuropsychiatric disorders. "It's definitely a step forward," says Paola Arlotta, a prominent Harvard University brain organoid researcher who wasn't involved in the study. 

Some bioethicists are uneasy about the implications of putting human cells into rats. "It raises the possibility that you're creating an enhanced rat that might have cognitive capacities greater than an ordinary rat," said Julian Savulescu, a bioethicist at the National University of Singapore. But Dr. Sergiu Pasca, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford who developed the transplant technique, says the human brain organoids, made from stem cells, stop developing after a few months. "No matter how long we keep them in a dish, they still do not become as complex as human neurons would be in an actual human brain," Pasca says.

10. Creating life without sperm or eggs

In experiments at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, researchers created mouse embryos inside a bioreactor that were made up of stem cells cultured in a Petri dish — no egg, no sperm. The embryos developed normally, starting to elongate on day three and developing a beating heart by day eight. It was the first time scientists ever managed to grow fully synthetic mouse embryos outside the womb.

The experiment marked a leap in the study of how stem cells form various organs, and how mutations result in developmental diseases. "It also raises profound questions about whether other animals, including humans, might one day be cultured from stem cells in a lab," according to STAT News. "As soon as the science starts to move into a place where it's feasible to go from a stem cell population in a Petri dish all the way through to organ development — which suggests one day it will be possible to go all the way to creating a living organism — it's a pretty wild and remarkable time," said Paul Tesar, a developmental biologist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine who wasn't involved in the study.

11. Curing HIV

A 53-year-old man became the fifth person to be cured of HIV following a stem cell transplant he received shortly after being diagnosed with the disease. The "Dusseldorf patient," who was also diagnosed with a severe form of blood cancer, received a bone marrow transplant 10 years ago that gave him HIV-resistant stem cells, according to The Washington Post. He has been off anti-retroviral medication for four years with no trace of the virus in his body.

"It's really cure, and not just, you know, long-term remission," said Dr. Bjorn-Erik Ole Jensen. Stem cell transplants are considered high-risk and normally reserved for people diagnosed with cancer. The Dusseldorf patient was only the third to receive the treatment and be cured of HIV. For now, the treatment will likely continue to be reserved for cancer patients, but it "shows it's not impossible — it's just very difficult — to remove HIV from the body."

With five cases of HIV having been cured, scientists are hopeful for the future. "Following our intensive research, we can now confirm that it is fundamentally possible to prevent the replication of HIV on a sustainable basis by combining two key methods," including anti-retroviral medication and stem-cell transplants, Jensen said.

12. Carbon capture

Scientists have found a way to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it to baking soda to be stored in the sea. In a new study, researchers also found a way to make carbon capture more efficient by using a hybrid of existing methods. "This material can be produced at very high capacity very rapidly," according to the study's lead author Arup SenGupta. "This simple ability to capture CO2 at a high quantity, in a small volume of material, is a unique aspect of our work."

Baking soda is also safe to store in the ocean. "Higher alkalinity also means more biological activity; that means more CO2 sequestration," SenGupta explained. In turn, the ocean can act as an "infinite sink" with an "immense capacity for accessible CO2 storage lasting hundreds to thousands of years," as described by Stuart Haszeldine from the University of Edinburgh. 

However, to truly be effective carbon capture needs to be expanded. Myles Allen from the University of Oxford added that it will only reach "the scale it needs to happen is if it's made a licensing condition of continuing to sell fossil fuels."


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