Many of the stories I write about fall into the “shock and awe” camp – discoveries that promote wonder without promising anything practical. These are different. They are technical achievements that have direct practical implications for improving our lives, developing our technologies and allowing us to better investigate our world. And no, before you ask, I didn’t write about Venter’s synthetic bacterium, except in jest.
Two spiders are walking along a track – a seemingly ordinary scene, but these are no ordinary spiders. They are molecular robots and they, like the tracks they stride over, are fashioned from DNA. One of them has four legs and marches over its DNA landscape, turning and stopping with no controls from its human creators. The other has four legs and three arms – it walks along a miniature assembly line, picking up three pieces of cargo from loading machines (also made of DNA) and attaching them to itself. All of this is happening at the nanometre scale, far beyond what the naked eye can discern. Welcome to the exciting future of nanotechnology.
Every time a cell divides in two, its genetic information is copied and there’s a small chance that mistakes (or ‘mutations’) will creep in. Marina Elez has developed a way to watch mutations in real time. She can look at dividing cells and literally watch the moment when mutations show up across the entire genome. She tagged a proofreading protein called MutL with a glow-in-the-dark molecule. The protein tracks down mutations and tries to fix them; when it can’t, it sits at the altered site and gives off a telltale glow.
Ricin is one of the most potent poisons known. One milligram can be lethal, and there is no known antidote. But there might eventually be one. Bahne Stechmann at the Curie Institute has discovered the first small molecule that protects mice against ricin. Stechmann scoured a library of over 16,000 potential drugs and simultaneously tested all of them on ricin-treated cells. One of these drugs, known as Retro-2, not only saves mice from death by ricin, it also defends them against a related class of poisons called Shiga-like toxins.
It’s one of the greatest collections of films ever made, and its actors are living cells. A group of scientists known as the Mitocheck Consortium systematically went through the 21,000 genes in the human genome and inactivated them, one by one, in different cells. They filmed these subtly different cells as they divided in two, creating an incredible (publicly available) library of 190,000 films, all shot in time-lapse photography. Name a gene, any gene, and with a couple of mouse clicks, you can find a movie that shows you what happens when it’s knocked out. It’s a treasure trove of data.
An Arctic bacteria called Colwellia psycherythraea thrives at subzero temperatures where most other bacteria would struggle to survive. Its cold-tolerating genes could form the basis of the next generation of anti-bacterial vaccines. Colwellia’s dies at temperatures that most other bacteria cope with easily. By shoving its genes into bacteria that cause human diseases, Barry Duplantis managed created strains that die at human body temperature. When injected into mice they died, but not before alerted the immune system and triggering a defensive response that protected the mice against later assaults.
Since 2004, Google have been scanning millions of books, and Jean-Baptiste Michel has been working with them to analyse the flood of data. The result is a study of 4% of the books ever published. It shows vocabularies expanding and grammar evolving. It contains stories about our adoption of technology, our quest for fame, and our battle for equality. And it hides the traces of tragedy, including traces of political suppression, records of past plagues, and a fading connection with our own history. It even spawned one of the most addictive games of the last year – the hunt for amusing and insightful ngrams.
A German man called Miikka regained partial vision after many years of blindness, thanks to a small chip, implanted directly into his retina. The chip contains 1,500 light-detecting diodes that detect light and convert it into a current. The brighter the light that hits the chip, the stronger the current it puts out. Thanks to the device, Mikkaa could read large letters, name objects like a fork or fruit, approach people in a room and discern different shades of grey. He could even read his own name.
P2 is 18 years old and has been receiving monthly blood transfusions since the age of 3. He has a genetic disorder called beta-thalassaemia, where a broken beta-globin gene prevents him from making working haemoglobin, the protein that carry oxygen around the bloodstream. But for the last 21 months, he hasn’t needed transfusions. A team of scientists used a virus to transfer working copies of P2’s broken gene straight into his blood stem cells. As a result, P2 is still mildly anaemic, but he enjoys a good quality of life. It was a major victory for gene therapy.
An American rat became the first donor of a transplanted lung that had been rebuilt in a lab. Laura Niklason took an existing lung, stripped away the cells and blood vessels to leave behind a scaffold of connective tissues, and re-grew the missing cells in a vat. The reconstituted lung was transplanted into a rat, it worked (albeit with some later problems). This is important because the lungs are notoriously bad at regenerating and repairing themselves. The only real solution for severe damage is a lung transplant and donors are very rare. The ultimate goal is to fit patients with transplanted lungs grown using their own stem cells.
LI1 suffers from locked-in syndrome – she’s conscious and aware but unable to move or speak. She cannot even control the blinks of her eyes. However, she has recently been able answer questions and communicate with her family, thanks to a ‘sniff controller’, an incredible new technology that allows paralysed patients to control machines with their noses. By converting pressure changes inside the nose into electrical signals, the device has allowed paralysed people to write messages, surf the web, or drive a wheelchair.