A cure for disease and hunger. Water on Mars. A new human ancestor. This year, scientists have witnessed amazing breakthroughs. Which will be the ones to reshape humanity’s story?
In April 2015, Chinese researchers published a paper which stunned the scientific community: they had used a new technology called Crispr to alter the genes of a human embryo for the first time.
The technique uses a protein called Cas9 to quickly, cheaply and accurately ‘cut-and-paste’ DNA. There are serious ethical questions about its application — but scientists have already used it to reverse blindness, stop the growth of cancer cells, and create cells which are ‘impervious to Aids’. Suddenly the dream of curing disease may be within our grasp — and if it is used on crops, eradicating hunger may not be far behind.
But George Church, a leading Harvard researcher, warns that scientists must ponder the unintended consequences as well as the intended. ‘I’m afraid of everything,’ he admits. And this from the same man who hopes to use Crispr to resurrect a woolly mammoth.
In July, just months after China’s gene-editing experiment, science made headlines again — this time with the first close-up photographs of Pluto. New Horizons, a probe which left Earth in 2006, had finally reached its destination. The images it beamed home astonished Nasa; the dwarf-planet is home to vast fields of methane, ice-mountains as tall as Mt Etna, and even snow. Just over three months later, evidence of water was spotted on Mars — meaning it may, one day soon, be habitable.
But as some considered our future, others were looking into our past. A team of ‘underground astronauts’ in South Africa had excavated the bones of a new ancestor, the Homo naledi. It’s ‘weird as hell’ said one paleoanthropologist, Fred Grine. It has a large, human-like skull and versatile hands — but a tiny brain, and ape-like shoulders for climbing. And it is not particularly old — finding its place in humanity’s family tree could transform the story of our past.
And those are just some of the plethora of 2015’s groundbreaking discoveries — only yesterday, physicists at Cernannounced they may have found a ‘mysterious’ new sub-atomic particle. Across the science disciplines, there is a feeling that we are on the brink of something amazing.
The new frontiers in space exploration are the beginning of a new era for mankind, say space enthusiasts. The future is unpredictable — but this could be one way of ensuring survival. In 1969 we landed on the moon. Who knows how far we will have travelled by 2069?
Space exploration is all well and good, say others. But no matter where a handful of humans ends up, the precise micro-science of gene editing will affect the millions they have left on Earth. Curing the plagues of hunger and disease will transform the very essence of every single one of us.