Breakthrough of the year 2015 and runners-up

This year’s breakthrough, according to the scientific journal Science, is the CRISPR/Cas system. Not that it’s brand new – it was first described in 2012, and it was one of the runners-up listed by Science for their 2014 breakthrough, but its use in labs all over the world has grown exponentially, and its achievements and promises have now made it famous beyond the walls of molecular biology labs.

In a nutshell, the CRISPR/Cas system is a genome-editing tool: it makes it possible to delete, insert, or modify pieces of DNA anywhere in the genome of a wide range of species and cell types. What makes it so powerful, compared to other genome-editing tools such as TALENs, is that it is inexpensive and relatively easy to use.

On CRISPR/Cas:
Science breakthrough of the year
CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing – No pig in a poke. The Economist, 17 October 2015
Editing humanity. The Economist, 22 August 2015
CRISPR: the good, the bad and the unknown. Nature Special (collection of articles on CRISPR/Cas), 2015

Runners-up:

– pictures from up close of two dwarf planets: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft reached Ceres in the asteroid belt (between Mars and Jupiter) in March, and New Horizons flew by Pluto in the Kuiper belt (beyond Neptune, on the outskirts of the solar system) in July

– the DNA sequencing of the Kennewick Man, a 8,500-year old skeleton discovered in 1996 in the state of Washington, USA: analysis of the DNA confirmed that today’s Native Americans are descendants of Asian peoples who crossed the Bering land bridge at least 15,000 years ago

– the unveiling of the first analysis of some 1,500 fossils from at least 15 individuals found in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa: details of the feet, wrists, hands, skulls, and other fossils point to a Homo species that walked upright but still had some primitive features, such as a small brain and fingers suggesting that tree-climbing was part of the lifestyle. The researchers called these new hominins Homo naledi; the fossils have yet to be dated

– a vaccine against Ebola, developed by researchers at the Public Health Agency of Canada, picked up by Merck, and tested in Guinea in a clinical trial led by the WHO in 2015, was shown to be between 75% and 100% protective

– the discovery of lymphatic vessels hidden away in the meninges (the membranes enveloping the brain) of mice, and evidence suggesting that human brains also harbor similar vessels. Up until the publication of these findings last summer, it was generally assumed that the lymphatic system stopped in the neck and that the brain had its own immune defenses without any direct connection to the rest of the body

– bioengineered yeasts capable of producing thebaine, the precursor of painkillers such as oxycodone that is usually derived from poppies. Additional modifications are however required to increase the yeasts’ output: for now, producing one dose of painkiller would probably require thousands of liters of yeast culture

– a wind of change in psychology research: studies in psychology typically involve small numbers of individuals and look at weak effects, an unfortunate recipe for generating results that are not reproducible; in the wake of several “reproducibility scandals” in 2011, psychologists sought to clean up their act and engaged in a wave of replications studies, to see what previous results would stand another test. The good news is that this has created a push towards better practices: scientific journals in psychology are now more willing to publish replications studies (instead of constantly requiring novelty in manuscripts received for publication – a problem that is sadly not limited to psychology journals), scientists have started to pre-register their studies, publishing methods and rationale before performing the experiments, and later on publishing the results and statistical analysis regardless of the outcome (and here as well there is a need for the scientific community at large – and even society – to recognize that not finding something can be just as interesting as finding something)

– studies of the Earth’s mantle using a new technique called full waveform tomography: thanks to the highest resolution images ever of Earth’s interior, the findings provide new data to further understand Earth’s deep stirrings

– the demonstration of quantum entanglement: researchers have shown that measuring the property of a quantum particle such as an electron instantly determines the state of another electron that is “entangled” with the first one, even as it sits some distance away (1.3 kilometers in the experiment).

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