Scientific Breakthroughs of 2008

The following article is the collaborative effort of JYI's Science Journalists, News and Features Editors and Senior News and Features Editor.

The 21st Century Body Major Step towards Cure for Lou Gehrig's Disease with Skin Cells Turned Stem Cells

By Falishia Sloan

Stem cell research, with its potential to open new doors to disease cures, has been a hot topic as of the last few years, and 2008 was no exception. This year, in a study led by senior scientist John Dimos, researchers have been able to induce skin cells to become stem cells in people who have Lou Gehrig's disease (also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS), a neurological disease marked by the progressive degeneration of motor neurons. Researchers gathered the skin cells from 20 patients with ALS, and reprogrammed them to have the same plasticity as embryonic stem cells. In other words, the reprogrammed skin cells have the ability to differentiate into any cell type in the body. Using these transformed stem cells, the scientists have been able to study both the progression of the disease and the effects of various treatments on the disease. Scientists are hopeful that the next step is to create healthy motor neurons in vitro that can then be transplanted into patients. Such a breakthrough can lead to similar research involving different diseases in the coming year.

Scientists Discover Way to Convert any Blood Type into Type O

By Brittany Raffa

Scientist Henrik Clausen of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark has discovered two enzymes that slice off sugar molecules on the surface of red blood cells. The sugar molecules, or antigens, are what determine if a red blood cell is type A, B, or AB. By cleaving the sugar molecules, the cells become type O, and act as a universal donor since any blood type will accept a transfusion of type O blood. If the wrong blood type is given to a patient, antigens will recruit antibodies that attack the foreign antigens, often resulting in death. The machine created by the Massachusetts's company ZymeQuest converts blood to type O and once perfected should greatly eliminate transfusion errors.

Using Tissue Engineering for Making Whole Organ Transplants

By Gurjot Singh

In a remarkable feat in regenerative medicine, a team of scientists from Spain, Italy and Britain engineered a new windpipe for a woman who had lost a part of it following an attack of tuberculosis, using her own stem cells and the framework of a donor trachea. And it works as well as a normal one, without any risk of being rejected, making it a landmark development in whole organ tissue engineering. The process follows the basic technique of tissue engineering, which uses a scaffold (that provides a framework for cell growth), a source of cells, and allows them to grow in the scaffold in a proper growth medium. The tissue is then implanted to the appropriate location. Though there has been previous work in organ bioengineering (including skin and urinary bladder transplants), this development provides definitive new evidence for the feasibility of using tissue engineering for whole organ regeneration.

Under Attack: A Look into the Versatile Role of Viruses FBI Uses Microbial Forensics to Solve Anthrax Letter Mystery

By Matthew Getz

Recent advances in the field of genomics have allowed the resolution of the seven-year investigation into the anthrax letter attacks of 2001. The FBI employed "microbial forensics" techniques to crack the case open, combining existing microbiology methods with DNA sequencing. Through the sequencing of the anthrax samples sent in the letters, the FBI narrowed the source of the bacteria to about 20 laboratories by 2002. The search was further narrowed by examining cultured bacteria from the letters for mutations and sequencing them. Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, is a stable bacterium that rarely acquires any mutations when grown only once. However, the culprit anthrax from the letters had been obtained by mixing 35 different cultures containing a variety of mutations in a single flask. Investigators culturing this mixture of anthrax strains were able to recognize mutant colonies and sequence them. This sequencing gave a characteristic genetic signature that was traceable to one lab at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. The successful use of microbial forensics in this particular case holds future medical implications for tracking and understanding infectious disease outbreaks. It also raises questions about the prevention of future releases of biological agents, whether accidental or intentional, from research facilities.

French Group Discovers a Virus Infecting another Virus

By Matthew Getz

Adding yet another element of complexity to the numerous interactions that occur among microbes, physician Didier Raoult of the Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France announced in August that he had discovered a smaller virus infecting a larger virus. This unexpected finding implies that one virus can potentially affect the evolution of another virus. Raoult's group isolated the giant virus, named Mamavirus, from a cooling tower in Paris and through microscopy discovered it to be infected by a 50-nanometer virus. They named this smaller virus Sputnik, which was the first satellite to orbit Earth. The research team then cultured Mamavirus and Sputnik with an amoeba and discovered that Sputnik makes Mamavirus produce both copies of Sputnik as well as mutated versions of itself. By sequencing Sputnik the group also found that Sputnik contained genes from three different viral families, including Sputnik, which suggests that it can shuttle genes among large viruses. This would be akin to the process of viral transduction amongst types of bacteria. "This is a completely new way of transmitting genes," explained Raoult about the novel finding. The research has applications for the treatment of other viral infections, such as smallpox, if smaller viruses, like Sputnik, can be made pathogenic for infecting larger viruses.

Rethinking Recycling! Plastic-Eroding Microorganisms

By Ziadh Muhammed

Given the global rapid consumption of plastic products and its slow decomposition rate, huge plastic mountains can be found in many countries. Plastic has a harsh impact on the environment and is the killer of many innocent creatures from deer in the forests to whales in the deep sea. Sixteen-year-old Canadian school student Daniel Burd may have now found a solution to this problem by singling out the microorganisms responsible for the degradation of plastic materials. His research has demonstrated that these microorganisms are able to significantly decompose plastic. By scaling up his research to an industrial level, the world could potentially eliminate plastics in the near future. His research won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair.

Green Gasoline

By Brittany Raffa

George Huber, chemical engineer at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute were the first to directly convert plant cellulose into gasoline. The process involves heating cellulose with solid catalysts and quickly cooling it, forming a liquid with many of the basic constituents of gasoline. The difference between green gasoline and normal gasoline is that green gasoline is derived from maintainable biomass materials. One advantage of green gasoline is that less energy is needed to produce it in comparison with ethanol. Green gasoline therefore has a smaller carbon footprint. The cellulose sources green gasoline is made from range from poplar trees and switchgrass to woodchips.

Sunlight to Petrol

By Charley Wang

Sunlight to Petrol (S2P) is a project sponsored by Sandia National Laboratories. True to its name, the project aims to convert sunlight into fuel, with the capability to create both fossil and hydrogen fuels. The core of this latest effort is the Counter Rotating Ring Receiver Reactor Recuperator (CR5, for short) which is composed of rotating ferrite (an iron alloy) rings. The CR5 uses sunlight to heat one side of the rings, and takes advantage of the rotation of the rings and other properties of the materials to reduce the amount of solar energy needed to create fuel. A chemical property of the ferrite is then used to strip the oxygen from water and carbon dioxide molecules to form elemental hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen can be used directly in hydrogen fuel cells, while the carbon monoxide, researchers theorize, can be further reacted to create methane or other fossil fuels. Sound farfetched? The Sandia team has already constructed a proof-of-concept prototype of their device – the principles are sound, and the reactions do work. Still, the technology is far from complete – much work remains to be done before the reaction is fast enough and inexpensive enough to be a viable source of energy. But in a world inexorably sinking into an energy crisis, Sandia's S2P project offers a glimmer of hope that we may yet learn to turn the power of the stars into the fuel for our cars.

Thinking Small Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking

By Jeffrey Kost

In 1960, Yoichiro Nambu of the University of Chicago laid the groundwork for an incredible achievement in particle physics that would later be expanded by Toshihide Masakawa (Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics) and Makoto Kobayashi (High Energy Accelerator Research Organization). Nambu used particle physics to study the phenomenon of spontaneous symmetry breaking,a problem including asymmetry between matter and antimatter. This problem was ultimately solved by Toshihide and Masakawa years later through the successful prediction of three variations of subatomic "quark" particles. With the recent experimental confirmation of the predictions, the three physicists won the Nobel Prize this year for a truly outstanding achievement in the field.

World's Largest Particle Accelerator: A Notable Opening

By Dunia Rassy

On September 10th the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest and most powerful particle accelerator was set in motion for the first time. After 20 years of strenuous work, the accelerator, which has a radius of 17 miles and lies beneath the border between France and Switzerland at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), witnessed its first proton face-to-face collision. Several experiments are planned, but the search for a predicted subatomic particle derived from a set of equations called the Standard Model is priority. This particle, known as the Higgs Boson, would explain why matter has mass. The discovery would bring about a revolution in the world of Physics, allowing us to understand how matter-less things, such as light, could eventually have mass. Unfortunately, the enormous accelerator suffered serious breakdowns that will hopefully be repaired by June 2009.

Shoot for the Stars SN 1996cr,One of the Brightest Supernovae Ever Observed

By Jeffrey Kost

The SN 1996CR supernova, reported in a paper this September by a Pennsylvania State University research team, was one of the nearest in 25 years (at 12 million light years), and the brightest ever, exploding with the brightness of more than a billion stars. The brightness of the explosion helped researchers study the surrounding area of the nearby galaxy that the supernova resides in,the Circinus spiral galaxy. The supernova's brightness is believed to be due to its relatively unoccupied neighboring environment in the galaxy.

Discovery of Extrasolar Planets: Trio of Super-Earths

By Yangguang Ou

17 June 2008 – With the help of an instrument known as HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher), an international team of astronomers led by Michel Mayor at the European Southern Laboratory in Chile discovered a trio of planets orbiting a nearby star. These planets fell into the category labeled as "super-Earths," a group of rocky planets more massive than Earth but smaller than Uranus and Neptune. The discovery was announced after a five-year study of the nearby star HD 40307, whose slight back and forth motion due to the gravitational pulls by the orbiting planets confirmed the presence of the rocky satellites. "We have made very precise measurements of the velocity of the star . . . over the last five years, which clearly reveal the presence of three planets," says Mayor. Recently in December, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope discovered carbon dioxide on one of the super-Earths (HD 189733b), thereby opening up the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life.

A Glimpse into the Future "Goodbye 010101..!" The Evolution of Computer Networks into Quantum Computing

By Falishia Sloan

What would we do without a new computer advancement each year,especially one that can bring computer processing speed and power beyond your wildest dreams? HP Lab's Quantum Information Processing Group is now researching a way to utilize photons,packets of light energy,instead of the currently used electrons for computer information processing. What does this mean to the average computer user? Computer processing as we know it uses electrons. This method allows for two variations of information coding, which are named "0" and "1." Now imagine a computing system that has, not two, but an infinite choice of values. These quantum bits,known as "qubits",are the driving force behind this new concept of quantum processing, and would allow for the ability to perform numerous processes at the same time. Imagine what we'd be able to do! Such a concept will surely garner further study in the coming year.

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