In science, it was the best of times, and the worst of times.
2018 was a year when researchers focused in on ways to head off disease by reprogramming a patient’s own cells, but also crossed what many thought were ethical red lines in genetic experimentation. It was the first year in which women won a share of the Nobel Prize for physics as well as for chemistry, but also a year when the #MeToo issue came to the fore in the science community.
And it was the year that marked the passing of British physicist Stephen Hawking, who was arguably the world’s best-known living scientist.
As I look back at 2018, I’m seeing some stories that I missed but ended up featuring prominently in other folks’ year-end recaps. So, to even things out, my top-ten list focuses on five developments that we featured in the course of the last 12 months, and five more that didn’t get much play at the time. Feel free to use the comment section to cast write-in ballots for the year’s science highlights and low lights. (For example, the sad tale of Tahlequah and the Southern Resident orca population tops The Seattle Times’ year-end list):
Five breakthroughs we featured
Gene-edited babies born in China: Last month, genetic researcher He Jiankui announced that twin girls had been born with a genetically engineered mutation aimed at preventing them from getting the HIV virus. The claim raised concerns that a door was being opened to science-fiction scenarios in which genetic traits are changed or enhanced with the aim of creating the real-life equivalents of comic-book X-Men (and X-Women). But since then, there’s been a rising tide of questions about what He and his colleagues actually did (or failed to do). Their experiments have now been put on hold due to multiple investigations.
Immunotherapy hits the big time: Techniques that rev up a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer and other diseases gained traction over the past year, thanks to research aimed at maximizing the benefits of genetically engineered cells while reducing the negative side effects. Seattle is becoming a center for such research, thanks to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a bevy of biotech ventures. Immunotherapy’s latest local heroes include Juno Therapeutics, Seattle Genetics, Aminex Therapeutics, OncoResponse and Kineta. Next year, the Allen Institute for Immunology will join the campaign — fueled by $125 million from the institute’s late founder, Paul Allen.
Solving the brain’s mysteries: The Allen Institute started out 15 years ago with a focus on neuroscience, and the past year brought a string of advances. In March, the institute’s researchers unveiled a publicly available database of computerized neuron models that could be combined like Lego blocks to simulate brain activity. Reseachers also took part in a project that turned up a new breed of human brain cell, and laid out a “parts list” for the brain in research featured on the cover of the journal Nature. Looking ahead, the institute and its Allen Frontiers Group will play roles in multiple multimillion-dollar efforts focusing on connections between brain function and disease.
Going back and forth on climate change: More than a year after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, there’s further cause for concern over climate. One study showed that global carbon dioxide emissions are rising again after three relatively flat years. An analysis issued by the White House ran counter to Trump’s own views and zeroed in on the region-by-region impact of climate shifts. University of Washington researchers contributed to studies documenting ice loss in West Antarctica and tracing the role of ancient global warming in Earth’s biggest extinction. Washington state voters rejected a plan that put a price on CO2 emissions, but the issue is sure to come up again in the months and years ahead — at least if folks like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have any say in the matter.
Getting set to return to the Titanic: Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate missed hitting its schedule for bringing researchers and mission specialists (don’t call them tourists!) down to the wreck of the Titanic this summer. But during this month’s trials in the Bahamas, the OceanGate team, headed by CEO Stockton Rush, successfully conducted a test dive down to the Titanic-level depth of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). That made Rush only the second person in history to complete a solo dive to that depth. (“Titanic” film director James Cameron was the first.) The achievement puts OceanGate’s Titan submersible back on track for Titanic expeditions starting next summer.
Five breakthroughs we missed
Fighting crime the sneaky way … with DNA: Genealogy buffs like me aren’t the only ones taking advantage of DNA testing. This year saw a headline-grabbing case in which investigators used family-tree genetic tests to crack a 31-year-old Washington state murder case. An analysis of archived DNA helped authorities narrow down their search to a 55-year-old suspect who was arrested in Seattle in May. The strategy also led to April’s arrest of a suspect in California’s Golden State Killer case, and more than a dozen other arrests. Researchers say family-tree DNA readings could be used to identify about 60 percent of white Americans, even if they haven’t personally submitted to a DNA test.
Single-cell RNA sequencing: The journal Science lists this genetic analysis technique as its top breakthrough for 2018. It involves isolating thousands of intact cells from living organisms, sequencing the expressed genetic material in each cell, and then reconstructing the cells’ relationships in space and time. Single-cell RNA-seq can trace how human cells mature over a lifetime, how tissues regenerate, and what goes wrong when diseases strike. German biologist Nikolaus Rajewsky told Science that the method “will transform the next decade of research.”
The crater that killed off the mammoths? Scientists have detected traces of a massive impact crater beneath a half-mile-thick layer of Greenland’s ice, thanks to NASA’s Operation IceBridge survey. The 19-mile-wide Hiawatha Crater is notable not only because of its size and the technical analysis required to make the detection, but also because it could address a long-running debate over the factors behind the disappearance of species such as mammoths and mastodons. Proponents of the Younger Dryas hypothesis say a comet explosion could have sparked wildfires across North America 12,800 years ago, resulting in a global cooling spell that killed off megafauna and doomed the continent’s Clovis culture. Not everyone is convinced there’s a connection between the Younger Dryas hypothesis and Hiawatha Crater, but the discovery got a top-ten rating from Science as well as Science News.
Tracing the tangles in humanity’s family tree: The debate over the roots of our species, Homo sapiens, has been going on for years — but several findings reported this year illustrate how bushy our family tree is turning out to be. Ancient DNA contained in a 50,000-year-old bone from Siberia provides evidence that two now-extinct offshoots from the ancestors of Homo sapiens, known as the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, interbred. That adds to ample evidence that humans and Neanderthals “did it” tens of thousands of years ago. Another study indicates that ancient cousins in the genus Homo inhabited China hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously thought. And still more studies suggest that Neanderthals were the equals of Homo sapiens in artistic flair, which runs counter to the “primitive caveman” stereotype.
Egypt’s new archaeological frontiers: The stories that had the biggest effect on my list of retweets reported a spate of archaeological finds in parts of Egypt that are off the beaten track — including a set of eight 2,300-year-old mummies at the Dahshur necropolis south of Cairo and the pristine 4,400-year-old tomb of a royal priest in Saqqara. There were notable misfires as well, including the discovery of a millennia-old sarcophagus that turned out to be filled with not-so-ancient sewage, and the determination that King Tut’s tomb doesn’t contain a hidden chamber after all.