Science fiction can't beat reality, now that we're growing brains in vats, isolating zombie DNA and trying to re-enact Jurassic Park.
Even if 2013 has sounded the death knell for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (Nasa's) intrepid spacecraft Kepler, this has been the year for planet-hunting. Twenty years ago, we thought that the planets in our solar system were unique. But as our equipment has become more sophisticated, we’ve found an increasing number of planets in our galaxy. In fact, astronomers have now estimated that there are about 17-billion Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way. But the holy grail of planet-hunting is finding the rare habitable planet, one like Earth, that is the right distance from its star to have liquid water and can support life. Of the nine confirmed habitable planets, five were found this year and you can expect many, many more (some researchers estimate there are two billion in our galaxy alone) in the years to come.
In 2013, we made a human brain in a laboratory. Researchers at the Austrian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Molecular Biotechnology took embryonic stem cells and grew them in a gel with a nutrient solution, which reached a size of about 4mm over a two-month period. The scientists say they aim to understand brain function. Sci-fi readers think that it is the first step towards the end of the world. There is definitely something creepy about growing a human brain, but here's the interesting bit: there was no conscious thought at all. So, the miniature brains aren't going to rise up and overthrow us. Well, not any time soon.
It's just a matter of time until traditional manufacturing becomes history. Three-dimensional (3D) printing works by building up an object layer by layer. Granules of a material – which can be a variety of substances, including plastic and metal – are spread on a surface and welded together using a laser. Once the first layer has been melted, more granules are sprinkled on top and they are welded to each other and the layer below. These layers are incredibly thin and allow a degree of precision and detail impossible with previous technology. Scientists have begun making medical implants – a hip joint to fit, a skull plate moulded to an individual’s skull. Now we even have a tiny human liver that works, an outer ear, kidneys, blood vessels and bones. Next up: 3D printing of the human heart.
More than 100 years after Briton James Stuart Blackton made the first animated movie by drawing sketches on white paper, IBM Research has produced the smallest movie in the world, by creating pictures with atoms. Just a minute long, A Boy and His Atom uses about 5 000 carbon monoxide molecules to create 242 frames that tell the story of a boy who falls in love with an atom. Moving atoms is one thing, says principal investigator Andreas Heinrich. “You can do that with a wave of your hand. Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic level is a precise science and entirely novel.” The point? As we create more data, from cellphone to satellites and social media, how and where are we going to store it? This little movie is one step towards solving that problem.
The "franken-burger" cost a whopping R2-million to produce. Funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the burger was created by a Dutch team who took tens of billions of lab-grown cow stem cells and turned them into muscle, hence a burger patty, albeit a white one that had to be stained to look like real meat. The verdict? Food critics say that the burger tastes like lean meat, some say it isn't fatty enough, others that it isn't juicy enough. Some say it's meat, and they'd eat it. But it will take a while before it's on supermarket shelves.
Stanford University researchers have found zombie DNA. Pseudogenes are considered the mutated and somewhat useless cousin of genes, like a family member that you try not to make eye contact with. Although they resemble DNA sequences, they don't code for proteins like "normal" DNA. Some refer to them as "junk DNA". What does that mean? Stanford professor of dermatology Howard Chang is trying to make some sense of it for the rest of us by attempting to figure out what happens to cells during inflammation. "Pseudogenes have been considered to be completely silent, ignored by cells' DNA-reading machinery," Chang said. "But we got a real surprise. When a cell is subjected to an inflammatory stress signal, it's like Night of the Living Dead." That's right, when you have inflammation, a signal is sent into your cells, and these zombies rise from the dead. In droves.
In Montana, scientists have fulfilled the dreams of movie buffs everywhere – a full-bellied mosquito immortalised in sap, à la Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, that is where the similarity ends. Unlike the miracles in the movie, in which the DNA of all prehistoric dinosaurs is contained in the tummy of a tiny insect, the find rubbishes the idea that we can recreate extinct animals from a mosquito: the DNA breaks down, and all that is left is iron from the blood cells. Sorry, Steven Spielberg.
Human-human brain control
Every once in a while, there is a breakthrough that makes you wonder whether you are in a sci-fi novel, and sounds warning bells. Two Washington University researchers claim to have made a human-brain-to-human-brain interface. Yes, we've connected rat brains, we've even connected a rat and a human brain. But this – if it is repeatable and observable – is the first time one human brain has physically manipulated another human brain. The problem with reading sci-fi and fantasy is that you're better informed about all the things that could go wrong.
Electric shocks improve mathematical ability
Rule number one: don't try this at home. Rule number two: don't try this at home. A team of neuroscientists at Oxford University found that applying a "gentle" electrical current through the skull improved the speed of students' mental calculations. It's called a "random electrical stimulation" technique, which randomly stimulates neurons in the brain. The study has been criticised because of its small sample (25 people), but the Mail & Guardian wonders whether anyone wouldn't do something faster if they were being electrocuted, "gently" or otherwise.