1. Einstein’s gravitational waves

About 100 years ago, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves but lacked the technology to detect them. These gravitational waves were ripples in the space-time continuum, caused by the collision of two massive black holes 1.3 billion years ago. Now that we have the technology, researchers were able to detect a wave that stretched space and made the Earth expand and contract by 1/100,000 of a nanometer — about the width of the nucleus of an atom. The discovery of these waves further supports Einstein’s theory of relativity and opens new questions about the cosmos. The breakthrough was actually made in September 2015, but was kept quiet until researchers were certain about their findings.

2. Cell suicide may prolong life spans

As we make our way through life, our cells deteriorate and senesce after suffering DNA damage or another type of stress. These cells are alive, but can’t divide, which means they kind of just sit around. Some of these cells secrete chemicals to heal wounds, but they can cause harm when organs can’t replace the dysfunctional cells. They can also damage surrounding tissue. A paper published in February detailed a study in which mice were injected with a drug that causes the immune system to kill its own senescent cells. After six months of treatment, the mice were much healthier than their control group counterparts. Their hearts were better able to cope with stress, their behavior was more daring and “youthful” and most important of all, their average lifespan grew by more than 20 percent. Though not all age-related problems in the mice improved, the results are a promising step in learning more about these cells and possible anti-aging technology. 

3. Storing excess CO2as stone

One of the main causes of climate change is excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — we emit way too much carbon and fail to sequester it back into the earth because we keep cutting down the rainforests that do it for us. Scientists have been looking for new ways to store the excess carbon; In June, a team of researchers working in Iceland proposed turning it into rock. The team had been working since 2006 to inject carbon dioxide into the underground layers of basalt, which would react with the greenhouse gas and form minerals like calcite in a process called carbonation. A year and a half after the injection, measurements suggested that 95 percent of the injected carbon had been converted to calcite and other minerals. The founders of the project, dubbed CarbFix, said the biggest obstacle to storing carbon in basalt is money, as power and energy companies have little incentive to pursue it. 

4. Mind-reading apes

“Theory of mind” is defined as the ability to attribute desires, intentions and knowledge to others, and it’s something we learn growing up as a child. If we watch Mom hide candy in the kitchen, and then we watch Dad move it to a different location, we’re still aware that Mom believes the candy is in the kitchen. For approximately 40 years, animal cognition experts weren’t sure other animals understood their fellow beings also had minds. In October, scientists completed a study on chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans in which they showed apes a soap opera and tracked their eye movements. The results showed the apes knew what the characters in the film were thinking and what they were about to do, even if they knew the character’s thoughts were incorrect. The study is the first of its kind not involving food, meaning the apes remembered details without a pressure being placed on them. Victoria Southgate, developmental psychologist, said the study “suggests the capacity to track others’ perspectives and beliefs is not unique to humans.” 

5. Designing novel proteins

Our DNA encodes all of our genetic information, which is expressed by proteins, which are made up of amino acids. We’ve known how to read and write DNA for a while, but the issue has always been designing proteins to carry out the information. In July, David Baker and his colleagues figured out how the long strings of amino acids fold up into proteins, and they designed a way to synthesize unnatural proteins that can act as medications, vaccines and raw materials. Baker has already released an experimental HIV vaccine, a protein that aims to combat all strains of the flu virus simultaneously and enzymes designed to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. According to Baker’s team, they’ve created 120 designer proteins, opening the door to a whole new industry. They’ve designed proteins that can carry information the same way DNA does, and ones that can spontaneously arrange themselves into a flat, interlocking layer, which may lead to new types of solar cells and electronic devices. 

Rachael Snodgrass is a columnist.

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