13 MIND-BLOWING DISCOVERIES
Last year’s top research.
Earth-size planets that could sustain life. Astronomers found seven planets outside our solar system that circle a tiny star called TRAPPIST-1, about 40 light-years away. Three are in what NASA calls the habitable zone, which could be right for the existence of liquid water and possibly also for extraterrestrial life.
so loud, they were named after a rock band. On the Pacific coast of Panama, scientists discovered a new pistol shrimp that uses its large claw to create a noise so loud it can stun – or even kill – small fish. The boom created by the animal’s snapping claw can reach 210 decibels. (A loud concert is about 120 to 129 decibels.) The team members dubbed it Synalpheus pinkfloydi, inspired by their love of Pink Floyd.
A therapy that reverses ageing in mice. As we age, senescent, or damaged, cells build up in our
tissues, possibly promoting agerelated diseases. Dutch scientists developed a molecule that purges those cells. When given to elderly mice, their fur regrew, their kidney function improved, and they could run twice as far as untreated mice. One scientist called it a landmark advance in the field of ageing.
spray gun for burns victims. Biomedical scientists have created a device that sprays a patient’s own stem cells onto wounds, helping them grow a new, healthy layer of skin in as few as four days. Biotech firm RenovaCare recently obtained a patent for the SkinGun and has used it to successfully treat dozens of burn patients in trials. While the device is still awaiting USFDA approval, it’s a game changer that could help eliminate the painful and scarring process of skin grafting.
venom that may halt stroke damage. A bite from an Australian funnel-web spider could kill you in 15 minutes if left untreated. But scientists discovered that a peptide found in the venom of one species of funnel web may protect brain cells from being destroyed by a stroke, even eight hours after the event. If the treatment fares well in human trials, it may become the first drug that can protect against stroke-induced brain damage.
Ghostbusters dinosaur. Scientists in Toronto identified a new species of dinosaur and named it Zuul, after the doglike monster in the 1984 film Ghostbusters. Like its namesake, the dinosaur had horns behind its eyes, spikes on its face, and a barbed, club-like tail. The dinosaur’s fossilised skeleton, unearthed in Montana, is one of the most complete and best-preserved ankylosaurs – armoured, lizard-like dinosaurs – ever found, with skull and three-metre tail intact.
fighting frog mucus. Scientists discovered that the slime covering the skin of a frog from southern India, Hydrophylax bahuvistara, contains antimicrobial peptides (the building blocks of protein) that destroy bacteria and viruses – including key strains of the human flu – while protecting normal cells. So far, the therapy has been used only in the laboratory.
blood that kills infections. Scientists found a new antimicrobial compound in the blood of Komodo dragons, the world’s largest lizards, that appears to help them ward off infections that would kill less hardy animals. (Their saliva contains at least 57 species of bacteria that make their bite so deadly to other creatures.) In the lab, the substance healed infected wounds on mice faster than existing
options, potentially giving doctors a new tool to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
stone circles in Brazil. Researchers using drones identified more than 450 earthworks consisting of stone circles enclosed by ditches, like that at Stonehenge, in the remote northwestern part of Brazil, indicating people lived in the area far earlier than scientists originally thought. While their purpose is unclear, they date back at least 1000 years, long before Europeans arrived on the continent.
artificial womb to nurture premmies. In what could be a huge breakthrough in treating premature babies, scientists successfully built an artificial womb that was able to keep premature lambs alive and developing normally. The lambs lived for four weeks inside the device, which looks like an oversize ziplock bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid. The ‘womb’ could one day help bring human premmies to term outside the uterus.
eighth continent – ‘hidden’ under the ocean. Scientists presented evidence for a new continent – about half the size of Australia – in the southwest Pacific beneath New Zealand, dubbed Zealandia. Even though the landmass is 94 per cent underwater, geologists say it meets all the important criteria to be recognised as Earth’s eighth continent. As no scientific body formally recognises continents, it remains to be seen whether Zealandia will appear in future geography textbooks.
tool to repair DNA in embryos. Chinese scientists devised a gene-editing technique that may eliminate certain diseasecausing mutations in the DNA of human embryos. One day it could be used on viable human embryos to help prevent babies inheriting serious genetic diseases. But it has already raised ethical concerns about the potential to effectively design children – and alter the genetic heritage of humankind.
‘living drug’ that can kill cancer. An immunotherapy drug that turns a patient’s own blood cells into cancer killers is on the fast track to USFDA approval. In an ongoing clinical trial, the treatment was administered to advanced lymphoma patients who had not responded to standard treatments or continued to relapse. At three months, 83 per cent of patients were in complete remission. As trials progress, scientists hope the therapy could be the next big step forward in cancer treatment.