The scientific truths of 2016

I confess: I’m a veteran science nerd. I love T-shirts that quote Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” And, because what scientists discover one year may impact your health, wealth, and sanity for decades to come, it’s always prudent to know what practicing science nerds are up to. Here’s a sampling of significant 2016 science stories.

Human influenced climate change
Yes, it’s real. Glaciologist Lonnie Thomson and other scientists began sounding alarms in 1978. People at large paid somewhat more attention in 2006 with Al Gore’s book, “An Inconvenient Truth.” On Dec. 12, 2015, 194 countries signed an accord with the goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions sufficiently to keep the average global temperature rise under 2 degrees Centigrade. China and the U.S. produce the most of this global-warming gas. China has been reducing its reliance on fossil fuels to keep from choking on pollution and to lure businesses and sporting events their way. The U.S. position will likely be unclear for some time.

Meanwhile, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen to 400 parts per million in 2016 from 280 ppm in 1880. Higher levels of atmospheric CO2 correlate directly with periods of greater warmth in the geologic past. Over the past several decades, droughts and strong storms have increased, rising sea levels threaten coastal cities and entire island systems (like the Maldives and the Marshall islands). Some climatologists estimate that the record high summer temperatures of the last few years may become the new normal, and recent studies say the North Pole could be permanently ice free during summer months by 2052.

It’s a microbial world
A decade or more ago scientists began to realize that animals and plants, including us, are mostly collective networks of microbes. The Feb. 6 issue of Science News estimates we are about 75 percent microbes — at least after we void our GI tracts each day, because that’s where a large fraction reside. Those microbes add their genetic toolkits to ours, performing many valuable metabolic services as part of our microbiome. They also have profound impacts on other parts of our body, including our much-lauded big brains. Recent research implicates gut microbe imbalances in Parkinson’s disease and obesity, for example.

Agricultural botanists like Jan Leach at Colorado State University are actively looking at phytobiomes — the microbial communities of plants — in order to increase yields and thwart plant diseases. See my article in the Harvest issue of Colorado Gardener magazine: “A holistic approach to nurturing plants & feeding the world.”

Plastics and microbes
As the fictional Mr. McGuire suggested to Benjamin in the 1967 book, “The Graduate,” pay attention to plastics. Scientists now refer to the “plastisphere” in recognition of the estimated 268,000 metric tons of micro plastic fragments that circulate in today’s oceans. The Feb. 20 issue of Science News revealed that all of these bits of plastic (each piece 5mm in diameter or less) are covered in unique communities of microbes. ( This is a giant science experiment in progress, as it’s not known what effects these tiny floating barges of microbes will have. Some speculate that certain diseases might propagate across oceans more easily.

The Zika virus
Speaking of diseases, the Zika virus made headlines this year when it turned up in the western hemisphere. First found in 1947 in Rhesus monkeys, it was discovered a decade later in humans in Nigeria. No serious health issues presented themselves in Africa, but in South America pregnant mothers with the virus gave birth to more babies with neurological problems, some of them quite severe like microcephaly, or small brain syndrome. Mosquitoes like Aedes aegypti, whose range could be extended as climate warms, carries the virus.

Our philandering ancestors
New tools for reading ancient DNA have allowed us to see how humans interacted in the past—which is very similar to how they interact today. Northern Europeans and Asian populations carry from 1.5 to 4 percent Neanderthal genes—a variety of human that lived in Ice Age Europe and was enough like us to mate successfully. Similarly, certain Asian and Polynesian populations carry a small percentage of Denisovan DNA. The Denosovans lived in Ice Age Siberia and are now extinct.

Astronomers continue to try and figure out where most of the matter in the universe resides. All those sparkly stars in the night sky represent only about 1 percent of the matter necessary to explain our expanding and accelerating universe. Scientists have discovered some “dark galaxies” — large amounts of matter that hangs out together, but never condensed into stars, like our own and other star systems.

Astronomers continue to find planets around other stars — some of them rather Earth like. In fact, in 2016 they discovered a rocky planet 1.3 times the size of our world that revolves around Proxima Centauri, the closest sun to our own, a mere 4.2 light years away. It would take a conventional rocket a tedious 90,000 years to get there. However, scientists say we might be able to accelerate some mini probes using lasers that could achieve 20 percent of the speed of light. Their journey would only take 20 years.

National Geographic has been dramatizing what colonizing Mars might look like in a series of TV shows. Mars holds out the challenge of adventure and spreading the human story from just one fragile planet to two. It also opens the possibility of discovering whether life may have taken another path on a sister planet. Robotic probes have shown that ancient Mars had liquid water, a prerequisite for life as we know it. Because microbes are so tenacious, they might still survive in subsurface Martian rocks.

Scientists have been busy teaching robots how to learn for themselves rather than trying to program all their behavior from the beginning. This technique mirrors the process we and other organisms use to develop and change over time. Miniature robots might also serve as agents of health care that could be injected to a patient’s blood stream to cure their ills.

Changing the course of human history with CRISPR
In February in the North Forty News I reported on CRISPR-Cas9, a new gene editing technique so targeted and easy to use that it promises to change the way genetic engineering is done. ( Time magazine declared Donald Trump “Man of the Year” for 2016, but one of the runners up was the handful of people who discovered and perfected this new technology. Time described this new tool as a “breakthrough that could change the world.”

I will continue to follow developments related to CRISPR technology in the New Year. Preliminary work hints at truly miraculous developments in cancer treatments, agriculture, genetic engineering and the possible elimination of HIV and certain mosquito-borne infectious diseases. Researchers are being cautious and looking for effective ways to regulate this powerful technology with potentially far-reaching impacts.

Certainly 2017 will bring even more scientific surprises—some exciting and some a little scary — but always fascinating. Neil deGrasse Tyson has another quote I like: “I know of no time in human history where ignorance was better than knowledge.”

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