As we begin a new school year, this is a great time for Sabrina Edwards, the new Science editor, to reflect on the best scientific breakthroughs of 2018 so far. This summer was an especially productive time for scientists and innovators around the world as they made discoveries and created solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Genes determine how long a child will stay in school

In July, a multinational team of geneticists (James J. Lee, Robert Weddow, David Cesarini and others) compiled a report linking the number of years of educational attainment to genetic differences.

The researchers identified over a thousand variations in human genes that are linked to how many years people continue to pursue education. Their research has implications to control for these variations when considering environmental impacts, such as socioeconomic background, which have a high impact on education level. According to The New York Times, the study was also one of the first made possible by cheap and easy to access DNA testing which allows for scientists to study much larger groups, a reality that makes their statistical models more accurate. The one catch to the research is that the report emphasizes that their findings cannot be used to predict how long an individual will stay in school.

The genes identified in the study are connected to how neurons communicate in the brain via synapses. By identifying the differences between people’s neurons on a general group scale, the geneticists argue that they can identify different learning styles, or at least group them. These geneticists believe that the best use for their findings is to identify how best to adjust learning environments on a macro scale, such as altering class size or changing emphasis from memorization to critical thinking and vice versa.

Ghost Particles

Scientists working on the IceCube sensor project have identified and isolated a neutrino – a subatomic particle so small it’s nicknamed a “ghost particle” – for the first time.

Using sensors at the South Pole, researchers found one of these tiny, elusive particles and were also able to trace where it came from. Neutrinos are the second most abundant particle in the universe and they are created in nuclear reactions when protons collide and shatter, creating fragments so small that they’re a millionth the size of an electron.

According to the Washington Post, though finding these tiny particles is seemingly unimportant or less significant than larger (literally) discoveries, the implications for the fields of physics and astronomy for the future are shockingly large. Not only can astronomers use light to catalogue and understand the universe, but these tiny particles can give us new information about our neighbouring galaxies, as well as the history of the universe itself.

These huge implications arise because of the ability of neutrinos to pass through the universe essentially unchanged – they can move through substances that would block gravitational waves or light, making them essential carriers of information. The information provided by neutrinos will allow scientists to refine the fundamental theories of physics, as well as allow astronomers to study cataclysmic events across the universe.

Large body of water found on Mars

A European Space Agency probe that has been orbiting Mars since 2004 discovered evidence of standing liquid water on the planet.

The probe, known as the the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (Marsis), detected a subglacial lake; the largest instance of water on the planet thus far. Previously, Marsis and other probes have detected droplets of water, glaciers, and rivulets formed down the sides of Martian hills, which imply seasonal melting, but this is the first example of a large body of water on the planet.

Marsis operates by aiming electromagnetic waves at the planet and recording the strength of waves that return. Scientists monitoring Marsis’ findings noticed that there was an anomaly about twelve miles wide in the waves returning from the probes of glaciers on Mars’ South pole. The strength of response could imply any manner of non-solid substance, including a concentration of CO2, but the waves transmitted resemble patterns observed from Earth’s subglacial lakes. The scientists involved agree that more data is required before making a definitive statement on the existence of liquid water on the planet, especially considering the temperatures on Mars are typically below 0 degrees Celsius. According to Science Magazine, the geological makeup of Mars suggests that minerals and salts are likely present in the water, thereby reducing its freezing point. Despite a very attractive explanation for the anomaly, there is still no definite answer to the existence of liquid water on Mars, but with additional data and research there could be an answer soon.

Breakthrough in Alzheimer’s Cure

Researchers at Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco made significant strides towards a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Their work focused on converting a specific protein associated with the disease into a less harmful version which could prevent the disease spreading and potentially erase existing damage in cells. Additionally, unlike previous research which depended on mice, this particular breakthrough came from experiments conducted successfully on human cells.

The protein in question comes from the presence of the apoE4 gene. Having one copy of this gene doubles an individual’s likelihood of developing a neurodegenerative disease and having two copies of apoE4 increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s by a factor of 12. The apoE4 gene, which creates the apoE4 protein, uniquely causes degenerative issues in human neurons, making the use of human cells central to the discoveries of this study. The apoE4 protein is associated with increased production of the amyloid beta protein, which has a tendency to clump and create plaques on neurons, blocking synapses and causing many of the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s. By targeting the apoE4 gene and preventing the development of the apoE4 and amyloid beta proteins, doctors can prevent the development of these plaques and potentially break down existing clumps.

Though the research was successful, clinical trials are needed before this breakthrough can be determined a true cure. For now, researchers are focusing on developing a compound from this finding that can be reproduced on a larger scale in order to prepare for a clinical trial.

Designing plastics that can break down on command

With single-use plastics like the ubiquitous straw dominating our environmental concerns, scientists at research institutions including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota have begun to develop synthetic polymers that can “unzip”, or break down on command.

When plastics were originally developed, the longevity of the composite polymers was paramount. Consumers wanted plastics to replace more durable materials. However, the engineered longevity of polymers has contributed directly to the plastic pollution in our environment.

Though in the preliminary stages, scientists are working on polymers, or molecule chains, that can be chemically recycled. These synthetic materials can be broken down entirely and rebuilt. The implications for most single use plastics such as straws and disposable cups are, at this point, economically unfeasible. However, for adhesives and foams, like those found in car seats, the options are much more viable. By creating adhesives that can be broken down, researchers believe that traditional plastics existing in composite forms that are impossible to recycle, would be splittable and thus recyclable.

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