And we’re back! The end of the year was quite a busy time for me, and writing for this blog had to be pushed to the back burner. But the year is new and I’m ready to jump back into the blogging waters. For our first post back, I wanted to write about the crazy stories in science that caught my eye in the last three months (don’t think I stopped paying attention!). So, without taking up any more of you time, let’s see what you might have missed in the back-quarter of 2018 so that you’re all caught up for the new year:
Gene-Edited CRISPR Babies:
Perhaps the biggest story in science to break since my last blog in October is that of the Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui. On November 25, word surfaced that Jiankui had just carried out the first germline genetic edit of a living human embryo that led to the healthy births of two twin girls, given the pseudonyms of “Lulu” and “Nana.”
In 2012, CRISPR/Cas9 burst onto the scene of genetics and rapidly spurred a revolution in the field. It essentially tricks a part of the immune system in bacterial cells into becoming a cheap and effective genetic editor. CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a naturally-occurring system in bacterial immune systems. In nature, viruses attack bacterial cells and they respond by attacking back, chopping up the viral genetic code, and using CRISPR to store that code so that it can be prepared to fight similar viruses in the future. The Cas9 enzyme uses this archive of viral genetic material in the bacteria to find threats in the future and cut them out of infected bacterial DNA. Scientist are now able to trick this system by feeding artificial genetic code to modified bacterial cells so that they can be used to edit whatever genes they please. Since this discovery, there have been countless research breakthroughs and applications.
Now that you have an idea what CRISPR is, back to He Jiankui. The controversial nature of this story rests on the difference between somatic genetic editing and germline genetic editing. When editing somatic cells, the edited DNA stays within the specific types of cells that were edited, and the changes die with the host of the edited cells. With germline edits, however, scientists are editing the DNA of gametes, or sex cells like sperm or eggs. These changes get passed on to future generations and are overwhelmingly likely end up in the overall genepool after the subjects reproduce.
When He announced his experiment, he shook the entire scientific community. Prior to his experiment, many believed the first trials of germline edits in humans to be years or decades off. This experiment circumvented decades of global ethical discussions, and it leaves many concerning questions open to discussion. Germline edits spur fears of creating genetic inequality in society, where the well-off can afford to create designer babies that are insusceptible to disease and are otherwise improved (ie. prettier, smarter, stronger, etc…). There are also worries that this unsolicited research could slow or stop the progress of potential future human germline genetic therapy trials. On top of all of this, since CRISPR/Cas9 is so cheap, fears are being raised that more scientists working off the books like Jiankui could carry out more dangerous experiments with little oversight from ethicists and the scientific community at large. Despite publishing ethics guidelines that he believes should be implemented to deal with the concerns brought about by his work, He Jiankui left an untold amount of controversy open to debate and has totally up-ended the entire field by irresponsibly acting on his own accord. This story continues to unfold, and it will likely continue to for the foreseeable future.
Click here for a timeline of the events of this story, from his announcement in November to his possible current legal troubles in China.
Big Things Happening in Space:
As you may know if you have read this blog in the past, I constantly find myself to be most interested in scientific news that revolves around space exploration. I can’t pass up this opportunity to share some really cool things that have happened in space since I last wrote.
On January 3, 2019, China successfully carried out the first soft landing on the far side of the moon in history. Since the moon is tidally locked in its orbit around earth, this side of the moon never faces the earth, and exploration there has been limited. Since the moon obscures the communication between any equipment on this side of the moon, remote control of the lander was impossible during the actual landing procedure, meaning it was on its own and had to land with only computer automation aided by on-board cameras and lasers. This landing wasn’t just a first, it was an engineering feat.
On board the craft and the Yutu 2 rover it carried with it are an array of instruments and experiments. Among these are radiation gauges, ground radar and a spectrometer to investigate the geology, and radio telescopes to carry out radio astronomy with significantly less natural interference than possible anywhere on earth. One other cool experiment it carried with it to the moon was a climate-controlled tank containing cotton, potato, and Arabidopsis seeds. On January 15, we received news that the cotton seeds had sprouted. Though the International Space Station has maintained plants for some time, this cotton plant became the first life that we know of to ever be born on an alien world off of the earth. This exciting life was unfortunately declared dead the following day, though it’s unique place in history deserves recognition.
If you want to stay updated on the Chang-e 4 mission, the news outlet, GB Times, has been closely following the project and reporting on its progress. Click here to check in on news about the craft.
Ultima Thule / New Horizons:
If you’re familiar with ongoing NASA missions, you may be familiar with New Horizons. Launched in 2006, the craft was designed to fly by Pluto an explore the Kuiper Belt, a region of asteroids and icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. After making it to Pluto on July 14th, 2015, the craft set its sights on observing a Kuiper Belt object called 2015 MU69, or Ultima Thule as it has been nicknamed. On January 1st, the craft flew within 17,100 miles of Ultima Thule and gave us our first look at the farthest celestial body we have ever explored with a spacecraft.
Click here to keep up with news from New Horizons as it continues to fly through the Kuiper Belt.
End of the Kepler Telescope:
Lastly, but definitely not least in space news, is the “death” of the Kepler Space Telescope. Since 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has revolutionized the hunt for planets outside of our solar system, referred to as exoplanets. Data collected by the telescope since its launch have led to the discovery of thousands of cosmic-planetary-neighbors to our solar system. On November 15th, however, NASA sent the telescope it’s “goodnight” commands and officially allowed the telescope to retire after news of it running out of fuel was received on the 30th of October. This decommissioning even poetically coincided with the 388th anniversary of the death of its namesake, Johannes Kepler, on November 15th, 1630.
Data collected by Kepler will continue to be mined for years to come, and the TESS Space Telescope will take up the mission going forward.
Plan S and Open Access:
The last major piece of scientific news for 2018 is that of the European Union’s open access plan, Plan S, being laid out and gaining international support. Open access is the publishing philosophy that scholarly research, much of which is already taxpayer funded, should be freely available online and not hidden behind paywalls and journal subscriptions. Plan S mandates that, by 2020, all research funded via public grants must be released in open-access journals or, at the very least, be available freely somewhere online as soon as it is published. Plans for enacting Plan S are described in more detail here. On top of this revolutionary shift, even China has signaled support for the plan.
Open access will allow for freer transmission of ideas to the world, and it will tear down cost prohibitive barriers to entry in the field of science. This idea will have far-reaching effects for years to come in the scientific community, and it can shake up how the entire field operates. This story is certainly one to keep an eye on as it develops and progresses.
The stories above were all huge deals over the last couple of months, but they were far from the only stories to make me raise an eye-brow at the end of 2018. This blog is already getting long, so I will wrap it up, but I had let cool stories slip by like the possible discovery of a revolutionary “10-minute universal cancer test” or the Harvard Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) which aims to begin testing out geoengineering experiments that may one day help us combat climate change. But, alas, three full months of science news is nothing to scoff at! Science never stops, and 2019 will likely be just as important in the world of science as 2018. As I bid you farewell for this blog, I hope you feel caught up now and ready to see just where science takes us. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one making waves this year.
Written By: Jacob Monash