As a new year gets underway, Danielle Crowley looks back at some of the most important science stories of 2016
2016 was a funny old year. While most will remember the political upheavals and drama, it also saw huge advancements and unusual results in many scientific fields. Here are just a few of them to get the New Year started.
In one of the first major science stories of last year, 2016 saw the existence of gravitational waves proved for the first time. Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime, these particular ones occurring because two black holes collided to form one. This was exciting not just because it provided evidence for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but it also means that astronomers can now detect black holes, something they couldn’t do before.
A new planet, known as Proxima b was discovered orbiting our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Known as an exoplanet, this has roughly the same mass as Earth and is in the habitable zone, or “Goldilocks Zone” around its star, also known as the region where liquid water can exist. At “just” 40 trillion kilometres away, it would take our fastest spacecraft about 80,000 years to get there, so don’t start packing just yet. However, in the future this could be a possible destination to begin our advance into space.
Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? The money raised from it helped fund six research projects, and a gene responsible for motor neuron disease (ALS) was found. Now that a gene has been found, research into gene therapy to fight the illness can commence.
A new drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease is in the testing phase. The drug works by removing the build up of protein plaques in the brain that contribute to the disease. There are hopes that we will soon have a vaccine against this debilitating condition.
A baby was born with three biological parents. Since mitochondria (which power every cell in our body) can only be passed down through the maternal line, if mothers have mitochondrial disorders they can very easily pass them on to their children. This technique, known as pronuclear transfer works as follows. The nucleus of a donor egg (with healthy mitochondria) is removed and replaced with the fertilised egg of the couple who want a child. When the baby is born (free of mitochondrial defects) it contains the genetic material of three people.
Unfortunately, 2016 broke climate records, and not in a good way. Last year was the hottest on record, and Arctic ice coverage during the winter was at a record low. Over 90% of scientists are in agreement that this unprecedented change is mainly due to human activity. The effect of carbon dioxide in this was shown to be far worse than previously thought. Our seas also took a bashing, with the iconic Great Barrier Reef suffering the worst bleaching event on record.
But not all hope is lost (the ozone hole is on the mend for starters). If serious action is taken now, we may be able to snatch ourselves from the brink of disaster.
Obi the parrotlet flew through lasers wearing tiny goggles to protect his eyes. Using this data, scientists were able to debunk several animal flight models.
The West Indian manatee (sea cow) was downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened”. Tiger numbers are also on the rise.
An unusual sound recorded in the Marianas Trench is suspected to be a new type of baleen whale call. These filter feeders are the largest animals on Earth and include the blue whale.
A fossilised dinosaur brain was found, the first ever. It’s amazing because soft tissue rarely fossilises and can tell us reams about the animal.
All there’s left to say is bring on 2017.