12 recent scientific breakthroughs

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

Petri dish illustration
Researchers have reported a dizzying number of recent discoveries and achievements
(Image credit: Suzanne Bainton/Getty Images)

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 reporting a dizzying series of major discoveries and achievements.

1. Restoring reefs

Coral bleaching has been a rapidly growing problem as climate change worsens. Without intervention, the reefs will continue to deteriorate. To counter this, scientists have explored the idea of a “coral gym,” essentially a “ laboratory to make corals stronger,” NPR reported. The goal is to “train” coral to survive more extreme conditions.

Warming oceans and rising temperatures are the largest contributors to coral degradation. “One of the things that we do in this lab is subject them to different environmental conditions and evaluate who's a little bit stronger,” Ian Enochs, lead of the Coral Program at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told NPR. Researchers created a “complex matrix of aquariums” where they can “subject different types of corals to different environments and not only understand how they might survive, but perhaps help them to do so.”

2. AI to find aliens

Scientists have created an artificial intelligence model that can detect alien life, according to a study published in the journal PNAS. The algorithm can “distinguish between samples of biological and nonbiological origin 90% of the time,” after being “trained using living cells, fossils, meteorites and lab-made chemicals,” Live Science reported. “Put another way, the method should be able to detect alien biochemistries, as well as Earth life," Robert Hazen, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

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The AI “does not involve a machine having to look for specific things,” but rather “looks for differences between samples,” BBC reported. "These results mean that we may be able to find a lifeform from another planet, another biosphere, even if it is very different from the life we know on Earth," Hazen continued. "And, if we do find signs of life elsewhere, we can tell if life on Earth and other planets derived from a common or different origin.”

3. Inverse vaccines

Scientists may have found a way to calm immune responses for those with autoimmune disorders using an “inverse vaccine,” according to a study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. The immune system responds to specific identifying markers on invaders like viruses and bacteria called antigens, [b]ut some immune cells react to self-antigens,” which are “molecules from our own cells,” explained Science. “[I]n autoimmune diseases, these misguided immune cells turn against patients’ own tissues.”

The new research worked by “directing potential self-antigens to the liver,” where “immune cells there pick up self-antigens and then stifle T cells that could target these molecules.” The experiment was performed on mice. “The method they use is promising and potentially can induce better tolerance,” neurologist and neuroimmunologist A.M. Rostami told Science, adding that “we don’t know” whether this approach is “applicable to human disease in which we don’t know the antigen.”

4. Sequencing the Y-chromosome

Scientists have finally sequenced the entire Y chromosome, one of the human sex chromosomes present in those assigned male at birth. The feat has been "notoriously difficult" because of the Y chromosome's "complex repeat structure," according to the research paper published in the journal Nature.

"Just a few years ago, half of the human Y chromosome was missing" from knowledge of the human genome, Monika Cechova, co-lead author on the paper, told CNN. "I would credit new sequencing technologies and computational methods for this," Arang Rhie, who also worked on the paper, told Reuters. The X chromosome was fully sequenced back in 2020.

Understanding the Y chromosome can help with a number of health issues, including fertility. Genes have also "been shown to be required for the prevention of cancer and cardiovascular disease," Kenneth Walsh, a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, told CNN.

5. Discovering the motion of space-time

Scientists found evidence that the fabric of space and time gets warped by gravitational waves. "What we measure is the Earth kind of moving in this sea," astrophysicist Michael Lam told The Washington Post. "It's bobbing around — and it's not just bobbing up and down, it's bobbing in all directions." The findings affirm a facet of Einstein's Theory of Relativity that "space is not serenely empty, and time does not march smoothly forward," the Post explained.

What scientists discovered was the "low-pitch hum of gravitational waves resounding throughout the universe," and the findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. While the cause of the hum is not certain, scientists believe it originated from supermassive black holes circling each other, according to The Wall Street Journal. "Before now, we didn't even know if supermassive black holes merged, and now we have evidence that hundreds of thousands of them are merging," said Chiara Mingarelli, a Yale University astrophysicist and a member of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), which led the research, to the Journal.

The gravitational wave finding "does not put any torque on everyday human existence," per the Post, "but it does offer potential insight into the physical reality we all inhabit."

6. Gene therapy for muscular dystrophy

The Food and Drug Administration approved gene therapy for children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, reported NPR. The treatment is limited to children aged four and five while more research is being done on its safety and effectiveness.

Muscular dystrophy appears in boys far more often than girls and can be debilitating, or even fatal in a person's 30s or 40s. The treatment, developed by Sarepta Therapeutics, has faced some criticism, as there are some concerns about whether it is actually safe and effective.

7. Improving heart health

A daily pill, bempedoic acid, has proved its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease, especially in those who have adverse reactions to statins, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Statins are normally prescribed to reduce cholesterol; however, many individuals cannot take them or choose not to take them because of side effects. "Statins are known to cause muscle aches in a subset of people," according to USA Today.

Bempedoic acid works similarly to statins, but since it is only activated in the liver, is less likely to cause muscle aches. Side effects include an increased risk of gout.

8. AI mind reading

Scientists have created an AI-based decoder that can turn a person's brain activity into text, according to a paper published in the journal Nature. The system is non-invasive, meaning it doesn't require any surgical implants, and uses the same AI technology as chatbot ChatGPT. The technology scanned brain activity and predicted what words a person was listening to.

"We don't like to use the term mind reading," Alexander Huth, who worked on the research, told CNN. "We think it conjures up things that we're actually not capable of." He said the "real potential application of this is in helping people who are unable to communicate." To allay any concerns about whether the technology could pose a threat to privacy once further developed, Jerry Tang, the lead author of the paper, said everyone's brain data should be private. "Our brains are kind of one of the final frontiers of our privacy."

9. Slowing Alzheimer's

A drug from pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly showed signs of slowing the advance of Alzheimer's disease by approximately one-third, BBC reported. The drug, called donanemab, acts as an antibody specifically created to attack and remove "sticky gunk" called beta-amyloid, which "builds up in the spaces between brain cells, forming distinctive plaques that are one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's," BBC explained. "We are now entering the time of disease modification, where we might realistically hope to treat and maintain someone with Alzheimer's disease, with long-term disease management rather than palliative and supportive care," Dr. Cath Mummery of the U.K.'s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery told the outlet.

A side effect, however, is fatal swelling in the brain, which potentially affected three of the clinical trial participants.

10. Mice with two male parents

Researchers successfully created live baby mice with two male parents. According to new research, this was done by manipulating the chromosomes of a male stem cell, which turned it into a female egg cell, wrote ABC News. "This is the first case of making robust mammal oocytes from male cells," remarked Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University, who led the research, per The Guardian.

While the vast majority of the mice pups did not survive, the few that did grow up normally and were fertile adults. The genetic manipulation required to create the embryos is "a significant advance with significant potential applications," according to Keith Latham, a developmental biologist at Michigan State University. It could be used to treat or prevent genetic disorders, or even help same-sex couples have biological children.

11. 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 recent study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers also found a way to make carbon capture more efficient by using a hybrid of existing methods. "This simple ability to capture CO2 at a high quantity, in a small volume of material, is a unique aspect of our work," said the study's lead author Arup SenGupta, per BBC.

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," the University of Edinburg's Stuart Haszeldine told New Scientist.

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

12. 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 [a] cure, and not just, you know, long-term remission," said Dr. Bjorn-Erik Ole Jensen, per ABC News. 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, the Post added, but it "shows it's not impossible — it's just very difficult — to remove HIV from the body."

Editor's note: This article will be updated throughout the year.

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