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Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP/Getty Images

The Top 10 Science Stories of 2017

Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP/Getty Images

Scientific breakthroughs of 2017 truly spanned a gamut, manifesting themselves in nearly every discipline—cosmology, biology, and anthropology, to name a few. They ranged from astonishing revelations about Jupiter's famous rings to discovering a new continent on our own planet. Human cellular and embryonic sciences were in the limelight: Researchers fixed a disease-causing gene in human embryos in one experiment and grew human cells in pig embryos in another. Here on Earth, scientists achieved the first ever teleportation (of a particle). Far away, cosmic forces forged an enormous amount of gold, literally of galactic proportions—200 times the mass of our planet. Here are the top 10 most notable science stories of 2017.

1. WE FOUND SEVEN EARTH-LIKE PLANETS ORBITING A DIM STAR.

TRAPPIST-1 planetary system
NASA, Getty Images

We found not one but seven Earth-like planets, out of which three could potentially host life. Orbiting around a cool, dim star 39 light-years from us in the Trappist-1 system, these planets were detected through their eclipses—a brief dimming in their star's brightness when a planet passes in front of it. Although Trappist-1 looks more like Jupiter and its Galilean moons than our own solar system, its seven Earth-sized planets may have "terrestrial" conditions. Three of the planets are located in the habitable zone with their surface temperatures allowing for water oceans and an Earth-like atmosphere to form.

So far, most planet-hunting efforts were focused on brighter stars and bigger planets. Trappist-1 is the first planetary system found to revolve around a smaller, dimmer star—and its discovery holds the potential to uncover many more exoplanets.

2. WE CUT A DISEASE-CAUSING MUTATION FROM HUMAN GENES.

Scientists have successfully used a gene-editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9, to clip out a mutated gene in human embryos, replacing it with a healthy copy. Called MYBPC3, the defective gene causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that can lead to sudden death in young people. While this was a stunning medical success, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique remains controversial among doctors, ethicists, and sociologists, who are concerned that attempts to build a better human could lead to dismal medical and social outcomes. When the study was published, an international committee of genetics experts issued a statement advising against editing any embryo intended for implantation into future mothers.

A different group of scientists managed to convert CRISPR into a fast, sensitive, and cheap diagnostic instrument for a range of diseases. Called SHERLOCK (for Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing), this method turns CRISPR into a tool that can sniff out specific genetic information, such as abnormal RNA. Surprisingly inexpensive, SHERLOCK can cost less than a buck per sample, and can hunt down the RNA of disease agents like dengue fever or Zika virus, and even search for mutations that can cause cancer.

3. THE LARSEN C ICE SHELF BROKE, BECOMING ONE OF THE LARGEST ICEBERGS EVER.

Larsen C ice shelf
ESA, Getty Images

A giant piece of ice the size of Delaware broke off the Larsen ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, and is now adrift in the Weddell Sea. Weighting a trillion tons, it's one of the largest icebergs ever recorded.

Over the last few decades, the Larsen ice shelf went through major changes. The sections called Larsen A and B collapsed in 1995 and 2002. More recently, a rift along the Larsen C section was detected, and it grew slowly over two years—until it was hanging by a thread, and then finally split off.

The scientists say that while climate change is responsible for melting sea ice around the world, this particular fracture may have been inevitable. Ice shelves naturally break up as they extend further out into the ocean. Neither will the massive iceberg cause a sea level rise as it melts—the same way ice cubes melting in your gin and tonic do not increase the volume of water in that glass.

4. WE ACHIEVED TELEPORTATION (OF PHOTONS, AT LEAST).

Purely the stuff of science fiction until now, teleportation became possible this year. Although not yet able to teleport an entire human, Chinese scientists said they managed to teleport a photon particle from the ground to a satellite 870 miles away.

How does it work? Teleportation is transmitting the state of a thing rather than the thing itself. It's not unlike a fax machine, which sends information as various marks on a paper sheet rather than the sheet itself.

If you combine this idea with the concept of quantum entanglement, in which two particles are created at the same time and place, so they effectively have the same existence, you can shoot one of the particles far away, but they will remain entangled—meaning if one changes, its remote twin will change too. So it's not a Star Trek–type of teleportation, where you can transfer objects or people from one place to another, but more like having a doppelganger tethered to you far away.

Instead of sending marks on a paper sheet to a receiving-end fax machine, the Chinese scientists transmitted a bunch of photons. The team created 4000 pairs of quantum-entangled photons and fired one photon from each pair in a beam of light towards a satellite that can detect the quantum states of these single photons sent from the ground.

So why all the excitement if we still can't teleport people? For one thing, quantum teleportation offers possibilities of creating un-hackable communications networks. Any attempts to eavesdrop on a quantum system or intercept the info being sent would cause detectable disturbances.

5. WE DISCOVERED A WHOLE NEW CONTINENT.

You'd think Earth was completely mapped out by now, but this year, an international team of scientists discovered an entirely new continent down under. Called Zealandia, this eighth continent broke off Australia millions of years ago, containing New Zealand and New Caledonia, an island further up north. More than 90 percent of Zealandia is underwater, which is why it managed to evade geographers for so long.

The team drilled cores 4000 feet underwater and gathered more than 8000 rock and sediment samples and several hundred fossils. They discovered microscopic remains of organisms that lived in warm, shallow seas as well as spores and pollen from terrestrial plants, revealing that in the past parts of Zealandia used to be above sea level.

Besides their historical importance, these findings will help us understand the planet's future prospects. The fossilized records of Zealandia's past will provide more insight into the movement of Earth's tectonic plates and the global climate system, and contribute to the computer models used to predict future climate flukes.

6. WE FOUND A MYSTERIOUS VOID IN THE GREAT PYRAMID OF GIZA.

Using a new type of tomography that employs subatomic particles called muons, scientists generated 3D images of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, the biggest in Egypt. The images, generated as part of the ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, revealed a surprising void, suggesting an inner structure.

Despite being studied for more than a century, the Great Pyramid of Giza, built more than 4500 years ago as a burial place of pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), is still full of mysteries waiting to be discovered. Muons, which are byproducts of cosmic rays, pass through stones better than x-rays or other similar technology do, so they work very well for peeking inside the inaccessible ancient structures. According to the images, the void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it—the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long area that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi described it. The discovery marks the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

7. WE GREW HUMAN CELLS IN PIGS.

baby piglet
iStock

Researchers from the Salk Institute successfully managed to grow human cells inside pig embryos. The goal was to better understand how to develop functional and transplantable tissue or organs.

The project actually consisted of two parts. During the first part, researchers created a cross between a rat and a mouse by implanting rat cells into mouse embryos. During the second part, the team used the same technique with human cells and non-human animal hosts—such as cows or pigs, since their organs are closer in size to our own. The second feat was harder to achieve since people and pigs are further apart from each other than mice and rats are, and pig embryos develop faster than human ones.

While the experiment was successful, the technology remains very controversial, as many experts fear it could potentially lead to human-animal chimeras.

8. WE WERE WRONG ABOUT JUPITER AND SENT CASSINI ON A SUICIDE MISSION TO SATURN.

The Juno mission aimed at exploring Jupiter, which reached the target in 2016, proved that much of what we thought we knew about this planet is wrong. Turns out Jupiter's famous bands do not continue to the north and south poles. Instead, the poles are characterized by chaotic swirls and ovular features, which are Texas-sized ammonia cyclones. Ammonia, which emanates from Jupiter's great depths, plays a role in the planet's atmosphere and weather, but its levels vary greatly between different areas. Scientists still don't know whether Jupiter has a core, but they know that the pressure inside the gas giant is so strong that hydrogen, which normally is a gas, has been squeezed into a metallic fluid. The other mystery Juno may help shed some light on is Jupiter's magnetosphere, which generates spectacular auroras that are different in nature from Earth's Northern Lights.

In September, scientists deliberately sacrificed the Cassini spacecraft, which ran out of fuel after decades-long exploration of our other cosmic neighbor, Saturn. Launched in 1997 and reaching its target seven years later, Cassini tremendously expanded our knowledge about Saturn, its satellites, and our entire solar system. Thanks to Cassini, we assessed the composition of Saturn's rings and discovered that it has six moons. More interestingly, it expanded our assumptions about the habitable planets' range. We learned that a moon named Titan holds methane lakes, which could harbor a different form of life, and may have subsurface water oceans, possibly with hydrothermal vents akin to those in the Earth's undersea crusts. Now that Cassini's mission is over, all eyes are on Juno.

9. WE WATCHED TWO NEURON STARS COLLIDE AND SPEW ENOUGH GOLD TO MAKE 200 EARTHS.

Astronomers watched a never-before-witnessed cosmic phenomenon: two dead stars merging into one. It was a head-on collision of two neutron stars, which are superdense remains of previously exploded stars.

As the two stars smashed into each other in a distant galaxy 130 million light-years from Earth, they emitted gravitational waves which began traveling outward like ripples on a pond. When the waves began their cosmic journey 130 million years ago, Earth was still ruled by dinosaurs, and the complex equipment necessary to observe this phenomenon didn't exist. However, the existence of such waves was predicted by Einstein, so by the time they reached Earth, the scientists were ready with their detectors—two in the United States and one in Italy.

Moments after the detectors noticed the waves, advanced space telescopes registered a high-energy light burst. Hours later, astronomers spotted a bright new point up in the sky, emitting infrared and ultraviolet light, followed by x-rays and radio waves days later. These observations informed scientists about a "kilonova" hypothesis, which postulates that neutron star collisions generate and spew out heavy elements like gold, silver, platinum, and uranium. The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, scientists say.

10. WE DISCOVERED HUMANS ARE 100,000 YEARS OLDER THAN WE THOUGHT.

facial reconstruction of 300,000-year-old skull found in Morocco
Gunz et al. in Nature, 2017

Until this year, modern humans were thought to have originated between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, according to the oldest-known fossils of Homo sapiens found in Ethiopia. But recently unearthed remains of five early H. sapiens were dated at 300,000 years old, making our species 100,000 years older than we thought.

The new fossils were found in Morocco, on the other side of the African continent and further north than Ethiopia. Researchers now think that our ancestors may not have originated in any one specific spot in Africa, but rather evolved across the entire continent.

Before the Sahara became a desert, it sprouted forests and plains, making it possible for early humans to travel across the continent. The early hominids were likely following and hunting herds of gazelles or other animals, evolving new cognitive skills along the way, which enabled them to create more complex tools and develop advanced social behaviors. So as they spread across Africa, these early humans acquired the very traits that later came to define our species.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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