August 31, 2022

Five scientific breakthroughs to cheer you up

The headlines this year have been dominated by war in Europe, soaring inflation and worries about climate change.

But there have also been a series of remarkable breakthroughs in everything from microbiology to astronomy. With the help of the FT’s science desk, we have put together our top five stories this year.

As Clive Cookson, the FT’s science editor, points out, the pandemic raised public awareness of science to its highest level for “many years – perhaps since the 1960s space race and Apollo moon landings.”

1. An alternative to animal testing

Animal testing is a key part of developing new drugs, but scientists are now hoping to use either organs grown in laboratories or computer chips that use stem cells and circuitry to mimic human organs.

Not only would these developments spare animals, but they are also likely to better represent the effects of new drugs on humans, making the tests more accurate.

Diagram explaining what organs-on-a-chip are and how they work

The technology still has some way to go; a lot of data needs to be gathered before the process will fully convince regulators. It is also not yet possible to grow some organs, such as the human brain, in a lab. But the US Food and Drug Administration recently approved a clinical trial for French drugmaker Sanofi based solely on data from organ chips.

2. A new era of astronomy


The first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope were released in July, capturing stellar nurseries and dancing galaxies.

The telescope gives scientists a view back in time to around 0.7bn years after the Big Bang, hopefully offering new insights on how the universe was formed.

3. Harnessing the power of bacteria

In August, researchers in Cambridge said they were working on a way to edit the genetic code of bacteria, a development that would have applications across a vast array of sectors.

In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, bacteria are used to create products like insulin, but are susceptible to viruses, meaning that batches of drugs can be ruined. But the researchers, who have created a company called Constructive Bio, say they could produce virus-resistant bacteria.

Another application could see edited bacteria used to create new, fully biodegradable, plastics.

4. Predicting proteins with AI

© EMBL-EBI/AFP via Getty Images

Proteins are the building blocks of life, but so far we only understand the structures of 190,000 out of 200mn known proteins.

But Deepmind, the AI company owned by Google, said in July that its Alphafold program could predict the make-up of most proteins in existence and that it will create a database to allow scientists to rapidly look them up. The breakthrough is likely to significantly speed up research into areas like vaccines, for example.

5. Nuclear fusion record

Diagram explaining how a tokmak is used in experiments trying to obtain energy from nuclear fusion reactions

Nuclear fusion, the reaction that occurs in the sun, has long been seen as an ideal form of clean and endless energy. But it is incredibly difficult to harness.

In February, researchers took a large step forward, producing 59 megajoules of energy, enough power to boil 60 kettles for five seconds, a new record.

In the last few decades about $3bn of private funding has been spent on developing fusion, with some start-ups promising to deliver energy by 2030.

The next big milestone for fusion will be when Iter, currently the largest experimental nuclear fusion reactor in the world, is turned on. The project has been under construction for almost 40 years and has cost nearly $20bn.

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