20 recent scientific breakthroughs

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

Petri dish illustration
(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. 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, per NPR. 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."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.

SUBSCRIBE & SAVE
https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/flexiimages/jacafc5zvs1692883516.jpg

Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

2. The James Webb Telescope

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope was named Innovation of the Year in Aerospace Technology by the magazine Popular Science. 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, per NASA. It sits at the temperature (-370 degrees Fahrenheit) best suited for its infrared sight, with its view further protected by a multi-layer sunshield.

As a result, the $10 billion JWST "can see deep into fields of forming stars," Popular Science wrote. "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 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 will eventually 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.

4. A universal flu vaccine

Fighting the flu represents a new challenge every year because influenza viruses are constantly evolving. 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 COVID-19 vaccines. The vaccine has produced antibody responses against all 20 known strains of influenza A and B in tests on mice, per New Scientist, with 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. After its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, NASA has proven that it has the ability to deflect a giant space rock from colliding 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, Venture Beat reported. 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, per Popular Science.

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 one that's highly effective. Last year, though, the technology used to create mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 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," said Nirbhay Kumar, a professor of global health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, per News Medical.

8. Cancer treatments advance

Scientists have recently 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 develop a new drug combination to fight diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, an incurable childhood brain cancer, according to the Institute for Cancer Research. The proposed combination extended survival in mice by as much as 14% 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 the New England Journal of Medicine in June 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 told The New York Times.

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," Paola Arlotta, a prominent Harvard University brain organoid researcher who wasn't involved in the study, told NPR.

Some bioethicists are uneasy about the implications of putting human cells into rats, reported BestLife. "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, said 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 said.

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 [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."

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 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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."

16. 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.

17. 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.

18. 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."

19. 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.

20. 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.”

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

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.