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Genetic progress makes dreams and nightmares come true – GeekWire

He Jiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui discussed his lab's efforts to produce babies whose genes have been altered to protect them from future HIV infections. (The He Lab via YouTube)

In science, that is the best time, and the worst.

2018 is the year when researchers focused on ways to prevent disease by reprogramming patients' own cells, but also through what many people consider ethical red lines in genetic experiments. It was the first year in which women won the Nobel Prize for physics and chemistry, but also the year when the #MeToo problem emerged in the science community.

And that is the year that marks the passing of British physicist Stephen Hawking, who is arguably the most famous living scientist in the world.

When I looked back in 2018, I saw some stories that I had missed but finally appeared clearly in other people's final recaps. So, to solve a number of things, my top ten list focuses on the five developments that we showed in the last 12 months, and five others that didn't get a lot of games at that time. Feel free to use the comments section to provide a written ballot for this year's low-light science and light highlights. (For example, the sad story of the Tahlequah population and Southern Orca Population is at the top of The Seattle Times' year-end list)

The five breakthroughs that we show

Baby edited genes born in China: Last month, genetic researcher He Jiankui announced that twin girls had been born with genetic engineering mutations aimed at preventing them from getting the HIV virus. The claim raises concerns that a door is being opened for a science fiction scenario in which genetic traits are altered or enhanced in order to create real-life equivalents of the X Men (and Women) comic book. But since then, there has been a wave of questions about what He and his colleagues actually did (or failed to do). Their experiment has now been postponed due to several investigations.

Immunotherapy is a big hit: Techniques that improve a patient's immune system to fight cancer and other diseases have gained traction over the past year, thanks to research aimed at maximizing the benefits of genetically engineered cells while reducing negative side effects. Seattle is such a research center, thanks to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a group of biotech. The latest local immunotherapy heroes include Juno Therapeutics, Seattle Genetics, Aminex Therapeutics, OncoResponse and Kineta. Next year, the Allen Institute for Immunology will join the campaign – triggered by $ 125 million from the founder of the late institute, Paul Allen.

Solve brain mysteries: The Allen Institute began 15 years ago with a focus on neuroscience, and last year brought a series of advances. In March, institute researchers launched a publicly available database of computerized neuron models that can be combined like Lego blocks to simulate brain activity. Researchers also took part in a project that produced a new generation of human brain cells, and compiled a "list of parts" for the brain in the research shown on the cover of the journal Nature. Looking ahead, Allen's Border Group and institutions will play a role in multimillion-dollar efforts that focus on the relationship between brain function and disease.

Back and forth about climate change: More than a year after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, there were further reasons for climate concern. One study showed that global carbon dioxide emissions increased again after three relatively flat years. An analysis issued by the White House contradicts Trump's own views and focuses on the impact of climate change between regions. University of Washington researchers contributed to a study that documented the loss of ice in West Antarctica and tracked the role of ancient global warming in the Earth's biggest extinction. Washington state voters reject plans that price CO2 emissions, but this problem will certainly emerge again in the coming months and years – at least if people such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Washington Governor Jay Inslee have opinions on matters this.

Prepare to return to Titanic: OceanGate based in Everett, Washington, failed to reach its schedule to bring researchers and mission specialists (don't call them tourists!) To the wreck of the Titanic this summer. But during this month's trial in the Bahamas, the OceanGate team, led by CEO of Stockton Rush, successfully conducted a diving test to the depth of Titanic 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). That made Rush only the second person in history to finish solo diving into that depth. ("Titanic" James Cameron's film director is the first.) This achievement puts OceanGate's Titan back on track for the Titanic expedition starting next summer.

The five breakthroughs we missed

Fight crime in a sneaky way … with DNA: Pedigree enthusiasts like me are not the only ones who use DNA testing. This year saw cases that were the main headlines where investigators used family tree genetic tests to solve the 31-year-old Washington state murder case. The archived DNA analysis helped authorities narrow their search to a 55-year-old suspect arrested in Seattle in May. This strategy also led to the arrest of a suspect in April in the case of Golden State Killer in California, and more than a dozen other arrests. The researchers say tree-family DNA readings can be used to identify about 60 percent of white Americans, even if they have not been personally submitted to DNA testing.

Single cell RNA sequencing: The journal Science lists this genetic analysis technique as the top breakthrough for 2018. It involves isolating thousands of intact cells from living organisms, sorting the genetic material expressed in each cell, and then reconstructing cell relations in space and time. Single-cell RNA can track how human cells mature for a lifetime, how tissue regenerates, and what goes wrong when the disease strikes. German biologist Nikolaus Rajewsky told Science that this method "will change the decade of future research."

The crater that killed the mammoth? Scientists have detected traces of a large crater under the half-mile Greenland ice sheet, thanks to the Operation IceBridge survey from NASA. The 19-mile wide Hiawatha Crater is famous not only because of its size and technical analysis needed for detection, but also because it can overcome long-term debates about the factors behind the loss of species such as mammoths and mastodons. Proponents of the Younger Dryas hypothesis say comet explosions could trigger forest fires throughout North America 12,800 years ago, resulting in a global cooling spell that killed megafauna and destroyed Clovis culture on the continent. Not everyone is sure there is a connection between the Younger Dryas hypothesis and the Hiawatha Crater, but this discovery ranks in the top ten of Science and Science News.

Tracing the tangles in the family tree of mankind: The debate about the roots of our species, Homo sapiens, has been going on for years – but some of the findings reported this year illustrate how thick our family tree is. The ancient DNA contained in the 50,000-year-old bone from Siberia provided evidence that two branches were extinct from the ancestors of Homo sapiens, known as Neanderthals and Denisovas, interbreeding. That adds a lot of evidence that humans and Neanderthals "did it" tens of thousands of years ago. Another study shows that ancient cousins ​​in the genus Homo inhabited China hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously thought. And there are still many studies that show that Neanderthal is the same as Homo sapiens in artistic talent, which is contrary to the stereotype of "primitive humans".

Egypt's new archaeological border: The stories that have the greatest effect on the retweet list I report a series of archaeological finds in some remote parts of Egypt – including eight 2,300-year-old mummies in the necropolis of Dahshur in southern Cairo and purely the Tomb of an 4,400-year-old royal priest in Saqqara. There are also some important mistakes too: the discovery of thousands of years old sarcophagus that turned out to be filled with waste that is not too ancient, and the determination that King Tut's tomb does not contain hidden space at all.

Years in Space: From the launch of the first Falcon Heavy to the border of the last solar system

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