The year 2017 catapulted us into a science-fiction future, from human cell regeneration for growing organs, to banishing genetic disease through breakthrough gene-editing techniques and recycling orbital rockets. A lot has happened in the last year; scientific breakthroughs have made our lives safer, easier and more enjoyable. Researchers and scientists around the globe have worked tirelessly to bring us this future, so it’s worthwhile to take a step back and applaud their tremendous efforts. The world of tomorrow is being shaped as you read this, so let’s have a look at some of the biggest stories of the last year.
Creation of metallic hydrogen
For the first time in the world, scientists created metallic hydrogen by applying almost five million atmospheres of pressure to liquid hydrogen. That’s about five million times the pressure we experience at sea level, and 4,500 times that at the bottom of the ocean. It is the first time a state of hydrogen has existed in a metallic state on Earth. In its metallic state, hydrogen could act as a genuine superconductor and could revolutionize everything from energy storage to rocketry.
A tool to repair DNA in embryos
Chinese scientists devised a gene-editing tool that may eliminate certain disease-causing mutations in the DNA of human embryos. It is the first such technology to be used on viable human embryos and could one day help prevent babies from inheriting serious genetic diseases. But it has already raised ethical concerns about the potential to effectively design children—and alter the genetic heritage of humankind.
Spray on skin for burn victims
If a burn victim’s wounds are severe, home remedies for burns aren’t nearly enough. So biomedical scientists have created a device that sprays stem cells onto wounds, helping them grow a new, healthy layer of skin in as few as four days. Biotech firm RenovaCare recently obtained a patent for the Skin-Gun and has used it to successfully treat dozens of burn patients in trials. While the device still needs FDA approval, it’s a game changer that could help eliminate the painful and scarring process of skin grafting.
Successful editing of the first human embryo
Researchers in Portland, Oregon have achieved a significant breakthrough in gene-editing technology. Taking advantage of the revolutionary gene-editing technique, CRISPR, a gene linked to heart conditions was successfully “deleted” from a human embryo.
Three Earth-like planets
Astronomers found not just one but seven planets outside our solar system that circle a tiny star called TRAPPIST-1, about 40 light-years away. Three are in what NASA calls the habitable zone, which could be right for water to exist and possibly for extraterrestrial life.
A therapy that reverses aging in mice
As we age, senescent, or damaged, cells build up in our tissues, possibly promoting age-related diseases. Scientists from the Netherlands developed a molecule that purges those cells. When tried on elderly mice, their fur re-grew, their kidney function improved, and they could run twice as far as untreated mice. One scientist called it a landmark advance in the field of aging. Since we’re not mice, try eating these foods to add years to your life.
A “living drug” that can kill cancer
An immunotherapy drug that turns a patient’s own blood cells into cancer killers is on the fast track to FDA approval. In an ongoing clinical trial, the treatment was administered to advanced lymphoma patients who had not responded to standard treatments or continued to relapse. At three months, 37 percent of patients showed no signs of cancer. As trials progress, scientists hope the therapy could be the next big step forward in cancer treatment. Make sure you always incorporate these cancer-fighting foods into your diet.
First human-pig hybrid created in a lab
In a development that sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, researchers for the first time created embryos that were part human, part animal. The embryos contained cells from both humans and pigs. The hope is that the process could one day help scientists grow human organs inside animals for later transplant, but it also sparked ethical concerns.
Your stomach acid: a surprising new power source
Researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital invented a small voltaic cell that runs on the fluids in your stomach. The device could power sensors that would stay in your gastrointestinal tract for an extended period, monitoring vital signs or delivering drugs. Similar sensors today have to be powered by small batteries, which create a safety risk and eventually run out of power.
Spider venom that may halt stroke damage
A bite from an Australian funnel-web spider could kill you in 15 minutes if not treated promptly. But scientists discovered that a peptide found in the venom of one species may protect brain cells from being destroyed by a stroke, even when given eight hours after the event. If the treatment fares well in human trials, it may become the first drug that can protect against stroke-induced brain damage. These are signs of a stroke you might be ignoring.
Flu-fighting frog mucus
Scientists discovered that the slime covering the skin of a frog from southern India contains antimicrobial peptides that destroy bacteria and viruses—including key strains of the human flu—while protecting normal cells. So far, the therapy has been used only in the lab.
An eighth continent hidden under the ocean
Scientists presented evidence for a new continent in the southwest Pacific beneath New Zealand, called Zealandia. Even though the landmass is 94 percent underwater, geologists say it meets all the important criteria to be recognized as Earth’s eighth continent. As no scientific body formally recognizes continents, it remains to be seen whether Zealandia will appear in future geography textbooks.
Recycled rockets: the future of space
On March 30, 2017, SpaceX made space launch history by successfully re-launching and re-landing a used Falcon 9 rocket booster via rocket descent. This is the stuff of old-school sci-fi. Already having been the cheapest orbital rocket system, this breakthrough brought the affordability down even more — a saving of more than $18 million per launch.
Last but not least, Google’s artificial intelligence subsidiary DeepMind published a paper illustrating the way they are teaching AI computer agents to navigate complex environments. It may look funny to us, but it’s a big step forward for autonomous AI movement.