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Devangshu Datta: Breakthroughs to the other side

Scientific discoveries that defined 2011 and will shape the years to come

Devangshu Datta  |  New Delhi 

It is peculiarly difficult to compile a list of the most important scientific breakthroughs in a year. There is obviously some subjectivity and a lot of guesswork to the exercise. But for what it’s worth, here are some that extended the bounds of human knowledge in 2011, in no particular order.

  • Cloning stems cells of human embryos: the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) has cloned stem cells from embryos. In earlier experiments, adult eggs were used. The original set of chromosomes were removed and replaced with the desired two sets of chromosomes. This method works with sheep but not humans. A claim by a Korean scientist in 2006 about human cloning proved to be a hoax. researchers used human embryo cells without removing the original chromosomes, and added two sets of chromosomes to develop stem cells. The glitch is that ways have to be devised to remove the extra set of chromosomes. 
  • Quantum levitation: the video of Tel-Aviv University’s demonstration of using quantum effects to levitate objects went viral. A superconducting ice-hockey puck zipped around above a magnetic field, like in a Quiddich game. It’s unknown how effectively this could scale up to become an energy-efficient transport option. 
  • Clean water and produce energy from organic pollutants: led a team at Shanghai Jiao Tong University that demonstrated a fuel cell that used photocatalysis (light energy) to clean organic compounds in waste water. This converts waste to electrical energy, leaving clean water as residue. The fuel cell clears aromatics, dyes, pharmaceutical residues, soap and shampoo to generate power. 
  • Microbes that eat radioactive soil: Hiroshima University’s demonstrated, under the most tragic circumstances, that genetically-engineered microbes can eat radioactive material in soil, cleaning up caesium contamination. Field experiments continue in Fukushima. 
  • An anti-malaria vaccine: several different anti-malaria vaccines are under trial with experiments involving thousands of children in Mali, Kenya and other African locales. The RTSS vaccine, co-developed by Glaxo-Smithkline and the Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative, claims to cut chances of infections by at least half. 
  • A broad-spectrum virus-killing drug: MIT’s Lincoln Labs may have discovered a drug that kills a broad-spectrum of viruses. It identifies cells that have been virus-infected and wipes them out. This could finally mean a cure for the common cold, Bird Flu, AIDS and so on. 
  • Genetic-engineering to fight cancer: University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center and Perelman School of Medicine may have a more effective alternative to chemotherapy. They take the patient’s own T-cells (a type of white blood cell), genetically engineer, adding a protein that “eats” proteins present in leukaemia cells. Now to see if they can extend this to other cancers. 
  • Genetic engineering to reverse ageing: the length of telomeres (protective at the end of chromosomes) shortens with ageing and cell-division. Dr De Pinho led a team at Harvard Medical School has found a way to lengthen telomeres to reverse ageing in mice. Another team led by Jean-Marc Lemaitre at Fonctionnelle Génomique Institute Université de Montpellier, have demonstrated it is possible to reprogramme and reverse ageing in 96-year-old human cells. 
  • Molecular-mapping of the HIV virus: proteins consist of hundreds of amino-acids that can be folded together in multiple ways. of University of Washington developed a video-game called Foldit that can be played by non-scientists to “fold” proteins together in valid sequences. By enlisting millions of gamers, Foldit enabled distributed number-crunching of the billions of possible protein sequences. In three weeks, the gamer community found the structure of HIV — something labs had tried to decode for the past decade. 
  • The Higgs Boson and friends: may be close to learning whether the Higgs Boson exists, which was the primary purpose of building the Large Hadron Collider. In another intriguing experiment, and Gran Sasso, Italy, collected data that suggests neutrinos may be faster than photons. Definitive data and conclusions awaited. 
  • A new understanding of Bird Flu: Researchers collaborating at the Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam and the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus, have discovered ways in which the deadly H5N1 Bird Flu virus could become far more infectious. This is obviously useful. But if the results were replicated by terrorists, they could set off a pandemic. There’s an ongoing debate as to how much technical detail should be published — this could be a test case of scientific self-censorship.

Scientific breakthroughs combine insight, experiment, data-gathering, hypothesis, validation and theory in ways that can take years. Even after theory is established and lab demos, it can take an indeterminate time before useful applications are developed. So it is difficult to say how long it will be before some practical utility results from any of the above. Nevertheless, these are discoveries that could have huge impacts in the next five to 10 years.

First Published: Fri, December 30 2011. 00:06 IST