Science: The Year in Review 2015

By George B. Kauffman

This is the time of year that lists of the previous year’s most important events, discoveries, or other breakthroughs in various fields are drawn up, often on social media. As in the seemingly endless political polls that are regularly paraded before the American public, the results vary day by day and resemble a sports match rather than a rational endeavor.

For the second year in a row, Science magazine, the flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society, has asked its readers to pick the year’s top breakthroughs by voting on Science’s website. Simultaneously, Science’s own Breakthrough staffers were making their own choices for the 10 top breakthroughs of the year, which sometimes mirrored reader’s choices.

CRISPR surged to an early lead as high profile meetings and magazine and journal articles focused public attention on this gene-editing technique. Pluto, which the media hyped in July 2015 when the New Horizons probe swooped past the dwarf planet en route to points beyond, was a distant second. However, Pluto rallied as New Horizons scientists blitzed Twitter with get-out-the-vote tweets. By the time that final returns were in, Pluto finished well ahead of CRISPR in the popular vote.

Further down on the list, Homo naledi, a new human species, finished in seventh place. Also, Kennewick Man, the ancient Native American whose DNA was recently sequenced, finished in the last (10th) position.

The top people’s number 1 choice was Pluto (35 percent). In July, as I have already mentioned, New Horizons zoomed past Pluto, one the largest objects in the Kuiper belt. At Pluto scientists found a place sculpted both in the present day by the extreme seasons of an elliptical orbit and a 248 year-long year, and billions of years ago as Pluto cooled and cracked. Close-up views of Pluto reveal mountains of water ice lodged in frozen nitrogen. In accordance with all this interest in the dwarf planet, a wide variety of Pluto T-shirts is commercially available.

The people’s number 2 Breakthrough, the genome-editing technique known as CRISPR was conceived after a yogurt company in 2007 identified an unexpected defense mechanism that its bacteria use to combat viruses (20 percent). Crucial first steps occurred in 2013, followed by a massive growth in 2015. Now the technique has matured into a molecular marvel (A. Azvolinsky, The Scientist, January 11, 2016; http:// www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/ articleNo/45035/title/Finding-Enhancers-with-CRISPR).

CRISPR has appeared in Breakthrough sections twice before, in 2012 and 2013, each time as a runner-up in combination with other genome-editing techniques. However, in 2015 it broke away from the pack, revealing its true power in a series of spectacular achievements, such as the creation of a long-sought “gene drive” that could eliminate pests or other diseases that they carry and the first deliberate editing of the DNA of human embryos, which led to media headlines as well as the concern of bioethicists (“Editing Genes in Human Embryos Raises Ethical Questions” (GUEST EDITORIAL), George B. Kauffman, Community Alliance, August 1, 2015, p. 20; https://fresnoalliance.com/ wordpress/?p=11116).

The people’s Number 3 breakthrough of the year was the lymphatic system (15 percent). An unexpected discovery reveals that the lymphatic system, a web of vessels that helps to clear waste and transport immune cells in the body, extends into the brain instead of stopping in the neck as most scientists had previously assumed. This discovery of a physical link between the brain and the immune system could open new paths for exploring neurodegenerative and neuroinflammatory diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and meningitis. However, researchers’top priority presently is to fathom the basic structure and function of the newly discovered network.

The people’s number 4 Breakthrough of the year was the Ebola vaccine (10 percent). The unprecedented campaign to develop drugs and vaccines to fight the Ebola epidemic yielded disappointingly few results. However, an Ebola vaccine developed by scientists at the Public Health Agency of Canada, known to be effective on monkeys and adopted by the Merck pharmaceutical firm at the height of the 2014 epidemic, proved to be very successful in a clinical study in Guinea led by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Regulators like the European medicine Agency will require more data before approving the vaccine. However, Ebola flares up every few years, and even with out formal approval the vaccine will probably be deployed during the next outbreak on an experimental basis. This may prevent the West African epidemic from ever occurring again. The people’s Number 5 Breakthrough was Reproducibility in psychology (6 percent). This year brought about a transformation for psychological science, a field mire in scandal only a few years ago.

In a report published in Science in August 2015, 270 psychologists orchestrated a repeat of 100 studies published in the top three journals. The process proceeded so smoothly that psychology journal editors announced that the publication of direct replications should become routine. However, the innovation that may have the greatest effect on the rest of science lies in the design of the replication efforts.

The researchers followed a procedure called pre-registration, i.e., publishing the methods and rationale of each study before the experiments were conducted. Then they reported the results and statistical analysis no matter what the outcome. This prevents researchers from “cherry picking” positive results from their data or teasing out positive results from their data or leaving negative results unpublished. There are discussions of breakthrough s in specific sciences. For example Chemical & Engineering news has reviewed notable chemistry advances for 2015 (“Chemistry Year in review”, DECEMBER 21, 2015, VOLUME 49, ISSUE 49, PP. 18-27; HTTP://2015.CENMAG.ORG).

*****

George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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