A synthetic human genome is completed
In May 2010, scientists created the first artificial lifeform. Mycoplasma laboratorium was a new species of bacterium, with man-made genetic code originating on a computer and placed on a synthetic chromosome inside an empty cell. Using its new "software", the cell could generate proteins and produce new cells.
In March 2016, the same research institute in the U.S. announced the creation of a minimal bacterial genome, known as JCVI-syn3.0, containing only the genes necessary for life, and consisting of 473 genes.*
A few months later, in June 2016, scientists formally announced "Human Genome Project - Write" (also known as HGP-Write), a ten year extension of the Human Genome Project, to create a synthetic human genome. The original project – completed in 2003 – was the largest ever collaboration in biology and involved hundreds of laboratories, taking 13 years of work. It led to major developments in genomic-based discovery, diagnostics, and therapeutics. Whereas the original project (HGP-Read) was intended to "read" DNA to understand its code, the HGP-Write project would use the cellular machinery provided by nature to "write" new code, producing vast DNA chains.*
The bacterial genome created in 2016 had 531,000 DNA base pairs and 473 genes. By contrast, the HGP-Write project would be orders of magnitude larger and more complex, with three billion base pairs and 20,000 genes. However, the earlier work on bacterial genomes had paved the way for new tools and semi-automated processes for whole genome synthesis. HGP-Write would cut the costs of engineering and testing large genomes in cell lines by more than 1,000-fold within ten years. Alongside this, an ethical framework for biological engineering was being developed.
Longer term, the project would lead to transformative applications. Previously, the capability to construct DNA sequences in cells was mostly limited to a small number of short segments, restricting the ability to manipulate and understand biological systems. After the completion of HGP-Write, the ability to synthesise large portions of the human genome leads to major advances – in medicine, agriculture, energy and other areas – by connecting the sequence of bases in DNA with their physiological and functional behaviours. Some health applications that arise from HGP-write include the growing of transplantable human organs, engineering of immunity to viruses in cell lines, engineering cancer resistance in cell lines, and enabling high-productivity vaccines at low cost.
HGP-Write involves taking synthetically constructed DNA to produce a human genome able to power a single cell in a dish. In the more distant future, however, this area of biology advances to the point where entire synthetic people can be designed from scratch – new custom-made "super humans" able to resist all disease infections, or made immune to the radiation and vacuum in space, for example. This leads to profound ethical questions about the nature of life.*
Aquaculture provides the majority of the world's seafood
Aquaculture – the cultivating of freshwater and saltwater fish under controlled conditions – has remained one of the fastest growing industries in the agricultural sector. Since the late 1980s, traditional "capture" fisheries have been on a plateau. Aquaculture, by contrast, increased by 8.8% per year from 1985 to 2010* and had witnessed an eightfold increase by the mid-2020s. It now accounts for the majority of the world's seafood, surpassing wild catch harvests by weight.
The capture fishing industry itself has faced severe problems. Overfishing, climate change and pollution have all contributed to the sharp decline of yields.* Numerous regions have experienced near-collapse or total collapse and will take decades to repopulate. Examples include the UK cod and Chilean jack mackerel fishing industries.
The largest centres for aquaculture remain in East and Southeast Asia – with the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia seeing large increases in production. Cambodia in particular has seen massive growth.*
New techniques have been adopted, helping to increase both sustainability and yield. One such method, used for the cultivation of jumbo shrimp, is super-intensive stacked raceways. Shrimp are grown in large, enclosed tubes called raceways, in which computers monitor and control a steady circulation of mineral water. As they mature, they are moved down the stacked columns of tubes, until they reach the final bottom row, fully grown, where they are harvested. This method greatly increases the output of shrimp farms, up to one million pounds of shrimp per square acre, and can be deployed almost anywhere. Water usage is lowered significantly.* This method helps to alleviate the myriad of environmental damages traditional shrimp farming brings to the environment.*
Another method being utilised is land-based, closed-loop recirculating aquaculture systems. These indoor systems recycle around 98% of their water, with little-to-no discharge back into the environment. The risk for disease in a closed-loop system is essentially zero and minimises the use of chemicals or antibiotics. Being entirely independent from any particular environment, these type of fish farms can be built anywhere, no matter the distance from any major body of water.*
The growth of aquaculture has caused a major shift in commerce and trade. Countries previously reliant on imports are now capable of producing vast quantities of fish, crustaceans, seaweed and other seafood. Countries with dwindling natural fisheries benefit, now being able to produce as much or even more than can be caught from lakes or the ocean. Numerous startup companies have appeared to fill the growing industry. Aquaculture as a whole will become one of the most vital industries in the world this century, as traditional commercial fishing breaks down and produces unsustainable yields.
The International Linear Collider is completed
This project is the culmination of more than 25 years of concerted international effort with funding and research from Europe, Asia and the Americas. Over 300 universities and laboratories have taken part. It originated as a series of three separate collider proposals – the Next Linear Collider (NLC), the Global Linear Collider (GLC) and the Teraelectronvolt Energy Superconducting Linear Accelerator (TESLA) – all of which were combined into the International Linear Collider (ILC).*
Located in Europe, the ILC is the successor to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), building upon the work already done by that machine. Although its collisions are less powerful, it offers far more precise measurements. It also gives off less electromagnetic radiation.
The ILC consists of two opposite-facing linear accelerators, together stretching 31 kilometers (19.3 miles), that hurl particles and anti-particles towards each other at close to the speed of light.* Along with the linear accelerators, the facility contains two dampening rings, with a circumference of 6.7 kilometers (4.2 miles). Current energy levels of the collisions are 500 billion-electron-volts (GeV), but will soon be upgraded to a trillion-electron-volts (TeV).
The extreme precision and exact recordings offered by the ILC help to reveal some of the deepest mysteries of the universe. Some experiments are concerned with extra-dimensional physics and supersymmetric particles, while others provide research into dark matter.* Originally planned for completion in 2019, the ILC faced considerable delays due to funding, technical issues and international agreements. It is finally ready by 2026.*
3-D printed electronic membranes to prevent heart attacks
Following years of clinical trials* – initially in rabbits and later in humans – a new device is available that can dramatically improve the monitoring and treatment of cardiac disorders. This consists of an ultra-thin membrane, specially customised and 3-D printed to exactly match the patient's heart shape. Tiny sensors embedded in a grid of flexible electronics measure pulse, temperature, mechanical strain and pH level with far greater accuracy and detail than was possible using previous methods. Doctors can determine the heart's overall health in real-time and predict an impending heart attack before a patient has any physical signs – intervening when necessary to provide therapy. The device itself can deliver a pulse of electricity in cases of arrhythmia.
This electronic membrane can be installed in a relatively non-invasive procedure, by inserting a catheter into a vein beneath the ribs and then opening the mesh like an umbrella. At present, it is restricted to the exterior surface of the heart. However, new and more advanced versions are now being developed that will go directly inside the heart to treat a variety of disorders – including atrial fibrillation, which affects 2.5 million U.S. adults and 4.5 million people living in the EU, accounts for one-third of hospitalisations for cardiac rhythm disturbances and is a major risk factor for stroke.
Great progress is now being made in the monitoring, diagnosis and treatment of heart disorders, thanks to this and other breakthroughs emerging at this time, all of which are contributing to a rapid decline in mortality rates. By the 2040s, deaths from cardiovascular disease will reach negligible levels in some nations.*
Credit: Rogers et al, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Youthful regeneration of aging heart muscle via GDF-11
In the previous decade, researchers identified an obscure blood protein called GDF-11. This was shown to have regenerative properties upon the cardiac muscle in age-related diastolic heart failure. The substance was found to be present at high levels in youth, and lower levels in old age. When elderly mice were supplemented with increased GDF-11, it had a dramatic effect on their hearts – restoring heart size and muscle wall thickness to a much earlier state.
This offered a potential way of treating heart failure and aging in people. A series of clinical trials, beginning in the late 2010s,* confirmed this. By 2026,* it's becoming fairly routine for doctors to repair cardiac damage and restore human hearts to earlier states, based on the GDF-11 protein. Along with stem cells and other advances this decade, science is gradually chipping away at the factors which cause people to die.
treatments for Alzheimer’s disease
is the most common form of dementia. This incurable, degenerative and
terminal disease affects over 27m people worldwide, mostly aged over
65. The most common symptom is the inability to acquire new memories
and difficulty in recalling recently observed facts. As the disease
advances, further symptoms include confusion, irritability and aggression,
mood swings, language breakdown, long-term memory loss, and the general
withdrawal of the sufferer as their senses decline. Bodily functions
are gradually lost, ultimately leading to death.
the precise mechanisms behind the illness were poorly understood. In
2011, however, genes were identified that played a key role in biological
pathways such as inflammation, cholesterol and cell transport systems.
These provided new targets for potential treatments in the form of drugs,
behavioral changes and other therapies. New ways of delivering drugs
to the brain were also found, such as using the body's own exosomes
as carriers.* After 15 years of research
and clinical trials, the risk of developing the disease has now been
cut by over 60%.*
better roadmap to guide progress with the remaining genes and biological
processes, there is now real hope of actually curing the disease in
Griessel | Dreamstime.com
sea levels are wreaking havoc on the Maldives
At an average
of just 1.5m above sea level, the Maldives is the lowest lying country
on the planet. Rising sea levels are now devastating its economy, one-third of which relies on tourism. The mere
talk of a possible submersion had been denting investor
confidence in recent years. By now, countless islands are being abandoned as the reality of global warming begins to bite.* A mass evacuation plan is underway, with many of the nation's citizens resettling in Sri Lanka, India and Australia.*
Global reserves of indium are running out
Indium is a rare, soft and malleable post-transition metal, found primarily in zinc ore. It is mined almost exclusively in Canada, China, the US and Russia. Indium is used in various electronic applications such as LCDs and touchscreens, solar cells, LEDs and various batteries. It is also useful in making alloys, medical imaging, and in the control rods of nuclear reactors. Its role in electronic screens drives most of the production demand, which by now has resulted in global reserves being almost completely exhausted.** Recycling is one option being pursued to solve this problem, but it will only suffice in the short term. Fortunately, new alternative materials are being introduced, derived from carbon nanotube compounds that can take on the role previously filled by indium.*
of the Sagrada Família is complete
Sagrada Família is a massive, privately-funded Roman Catholic
church that has been under construction in Barcelona since 1882. Considered
the masterwork of renowned Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926),
the project's vast scale and idiosyncratic design have made it one of
Spain's top tourist attractions, visited by millions of people each year. Construction
of the building is finally completed this year, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí's death.*
Robotic hands matching human capabilities
As part of the on-going rise of consumer-level robotics, recent research in artificial intelligence and bio-inspired devices has reached a new plateau of possibilities. Modern robots are now able to fill an increasingly broad scope of roles in both home and work environments.* Easily one of the most important (and difficult) abilities for such machines is being able to recognise and interact with various physical objects. For simple or repetitive tasks, such as assembly line production, this knowledge was relatively straightforward, requiring simple programming and mechanical systems. However, the growing complexity of environments that commercial robots now have to encounter has driven research into more intricate and capable mechanisms.
As has often been the case, engineers turned to the human body itself to model both the form and function of new robot apparatuses. Since almost all robots must interact with and handle physical objects in some way, among the most commonly emulated body parts is the hand. Along with their associated computer programs and visual recognition software, robotic hands in the 2000s and 2010s had already boasted some impressive abilities. They could pick up delicate objects,* catch objects thrown to them,* make a range of gestures,* fold towels,* pour drinks and even prepare meals.* Despite this, the sheer dexterity and flexibility of the human hand and the practical limits of mechanical components prevented scientists from achieving a perfect recreation.
By the second half of the 2020s, however, the techniques involved have become sufficiently advanced to overcome most of the obstacles faced in previous decades. Around this time, some of the first robot hands equalling the capabilities of human hands are appearing in the laboratory.* Advances in nanotechnology,* miniaturisation and micro-electronics have allowed engineers to account for almost all of the subtle movements performed by a living biological hand. Graphene-based actuators converting electricity into motion, artificial skin, tactile sensors,* flexible electronics and various other features are employed to emulate the real thing. This has also been the result of an improved biological understanding of how humans manipulate objects.
AI programs, using precise visual perception software, are able to recognise countless physical objects and intelligently plan for how they can be manipulated. The robotic hand is therefore able to function autonomously and self-adjust to different objects based on texture, weight and shape. All of this can be accomplished in fluid, natural movements that are largely indistinguishable from those of a real hand. Though still in the trial stage, such systems will prove extremely useful in the development of human-like robots and androids. By the middle of this century, the subtle capabilities offered by robotic hands will allow machines to interact with humans and their environment in myriad new ways.*
Mars Science Laboratory is shutting down
This 900 kg (2,000 lb), six-wheeled rover has been transmitting back to Earth since 6th August 2012, the day it touched down on Mars.* Although its planned mission duration was around two years, it continued to be operational for considerably longer, like the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. In fact, its onboard plutonium generators carried enough heat and electricity to last 14 years. By 2026 the machine is finally grinding to a halt. The last signal is received from the rover this year.*