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What you should know about the top science stories of 2015 (Includes interview and first-hand account)

As we did last year, we’ve curated the most interesting science stories of the year. This is no simple task, as science news remains one of the top attractions to Digital Journal readers.

Using a similar criteria to last year, we’ve selected the stories with a wide global impact and which are impacting on, or have the potential to shape, people’s lives. For this task, one key science story has been picked for each month of the year.

Our annual highlights include articles about antimicrobial resistance, graphene, genetic engineering, diseases associated with ageing, among other topics of interest.

Beta-lactamases are enzymes produced by some bacteria.

Beta-lactamases are enzymes produced by some bacteria.

Starting things off with antimicrobials, the spread of antimicrobial resistant bacteria is presenting the global community with a major health concern. Pathogenic bacteria are increasingly becoming resistant to antimicrobials, which is partly the result of overuse. As the effectiveness of many antimicrobials falls, the number of new types of antimicrobials has slowed down considerably.

One potential way to address this problem is not to look for new compounds but to fight bacteria from within. Based on this approach it was reported in January how scientists have identified novel proteins capable of blocking growth in pathogenic, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This has been achieved by sequencing the DNA of bacteria resistant to viral toxins.

The most popular science story in February, and one of the most read science stories of the year, generated advocates on both sides. This concerned the ‘renaming’ of “chronic fatigue syndrome.” The new term selected by the body that registers the names of conditions is ” systemic exertion intolerance disease.” Because chronic fatigue syndrome was an established way that many suffers defined their condition, many people reacted angrily to the news. Medical experts too were concerned that the new definition is too broad, leading to potential misdiagnosis.

A man has blood taken for HIV/AIDS testing.

A man has blood taken for HIV/AIDS testing.

The spread of HIV remains a health topic of concern. In March we reported that progress has been made through the identification of a new mechanism found for blocking the virus. This has been advanced through a synthetic antibody; the antibody (coded eCD4-Ig), based on laboratory tests, prevented infection in four monkeys injected with heavy doses of the HIV virus.

The Chinese researchers say they modified the gene responsible for beta-thalassaemia  a potentially ...

The Chinese researchers say they modified the gene responsible for beta-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder
Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP/File

Genetic engineering is a controversial subject when it comes to human embryos. In April, Digital Journal’s science pages initiated a debate about whether faulty genes should be repaired. Screening mothers and embryos for genetic diseases is long established. However, technologies are being developed, pioneered at present by Chinese scientists, to replace faulty genes in early human embryos and germ cells.

These so-termed “germline technologies” have consequences: they lead to genetic changes that will be inherited by all subsequent generations. The philosophical movement associated with this technology is called “transhumanism.”


Tsuneaki Hiramatsu

The leading article in May concerned cancer detection. Here we reported about a team of scientists who developed a novel way to detect liver cancer. The approach makes use of beneficial bacteria. Through genetic engineering, these bacteria (coded Nissle 1917) emit a detectable luminescent pulse when cancer is present. This involves planting a protein from fireflies into the bacteria.

Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) image of a sarcoma This image of a sarcoma  or muscle tumor  was ...

Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) image of a sarcoma This image of a sarcoma, or muscle tumor, was obtained using Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT).
Dr. Stephen Boppart, Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Fighting cancer, once known, is also important. For the June leading science story, we turn to nanotechnology. Nanotechnology (or “nanotech”) refers to the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale. In the medical field there have been some significant advancements. In technology with an important application, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology reported in June it had begun trials on using nanoparticles and heat to attack tumors. The nanoparticles employed are re micro-sized balls of iron oxide (around ten nanometers in diameter). When a magnetic field is directed towards the nanoparticles, they produce heat and reduce the size of a tumor.

One of the most-read science story in July was, surprisingly, one about botany. What was claimed to the world’s largest flower was announced and the display of the flower, from the plant Titan arum, in Tokyo park led to huge queues in Japan, with people flocking to look at the immense, 7 foot all reproductive structure.

Food and health are topics which receive continual attention, whether this is about fad and unscientific diets like the so-called Paelo Diet; or aspects supported by empirical evidence. One subject that crops up from time-to-time is “which is better for you: butter or margarine?” Here, science has the answer: it is butter. A long-term study, reviewed by Digital Journal, found trans-fats contained in margarine to be connected with coronary heart disease (CHD) and associated mortality, ischemic stroke, and type 2 diabetes. This proved to be our key August science article.

As the world’s population becomes older, the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, rises. Finding ways to prevent, slow-down the progress of, or even cure, the various forms of dementia are very important. It was with some alarm that new research, reported in September 2015, indicated that Alzheimer’s disease, along with other neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, may be transmissible. The causative agent is a prion (a folded protein in a special form) and the connected was made following studies reviewing the forced administration of human growth hormone to children from the 1950s through to the mid-1980s. The hormones had been drawn from recently deceased people, some of whom had perished from neurodegenerative diseases. The inference is some human-to-human transfers of body material can lead to the risk of infectious agents being transferred.

Graphene enables ultrafast laser pulses for spectroscopy and biomedical applications.

Graphene enables ultrafast laser pulses for spectroscopy and biomedical applications.
Andrew Adams (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Graphene, a single-layer of a type of carbon, has been justifiably heralded as the wonder material of our age. The material is just one atom thick and very strong, highly flexible, transparent, with excellent conductive properties. Digital Journal has, throughout the year, featured many applications of the material. Perhaps the most interesting graphene-story came about in October, when we reported on the use of ultra-thin flakes of graphene to construct a very fast and very accurate stopwatch. This is no ordinary stopwatch, though; the detector is so accurate that it can detect incident light in just 40 picoseconds (with one picosecond being a trillionth of a second.) Applications include the synchronization of laser systems for a new generation of computerised systems.

CDC Influenza Growth on Canine Kidney Cells

Examination of a culture flask containing Madin-Darby Canine Kidney epithelial cells (MDCK), and looking for any signs of growth in a stock of influenza virus.
CDC/ Laura R. Zambuto

Wearable tech is the big technology story of 2015. Outside of the consumer applications, advances have been made in science too. Perhaps the most interesting is a wearable medical device that could one day replace kidney dialysis. The prototype for this is our November science pick. The device has been designed by the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles and it successfully removes water and salts from a patient’s blood at the same rate and with the same efficiency as a dialysis machine.

Det. Sgt. Darren Parisien speaking to media about Operation Snapshot

Det. Sgt. Darren Parisien speaking to media about Operation Snapshot
Screen capture from CBC video

One of the biggest advances this century has been with genetics, and this is heralding a new type of healthcare: personalized medicine, tailoring medicines to people’s individual genetic characteristics. Another area where genetics has proved useful is with crime prevention and it is to this subject that our December selection veers. To help identify a suspect criminal, genetics company Parabon Nanolabs analyzed DNA remnants left behind at a crime scene. This wasn’t for the usual finger prints, but to reconstruct the face of the suspect. A digital likeness was created and wanted man was detained. This was achieved through using specialist software called Snapshot. The software works by translating select biomarkers from a DNA sample into predictions about various physical traits of its source.

We’d be interested to know which application or technology you think deserves to be the ‘science story of 2015.’ Please use the comments section below.

2015 was, as presented above, an interesting year in science. 2016 looks to be an even more interesting one. Continue to check out Digital Journal’s science pages for the latest news and developments.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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