Biggest science breakthroughs: Controversial achievements of 2018


Whether looking through a microscope or a telescope, scientists spent 2018 searching for answers to push humanity, and our understanding of the universe, forward.

Here’s a look back at some of the most exciting — and controversial — achievements made in science this year.


In a controversial experiment, Chinese scientists successfully cloned a monkey using the same technique employed to clone Dolly the sheep more than two decades ago — marking the first time a primate has ever been cloned in such a manner.

Scientists used a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer to create two long-tailed female macaques who were born at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai.

The successful experiment was published in the journal Cell in January and promises to boost medical research into human brain disorders, the Chinese researchers said. It also led to fears that it will open the door to human cloning.

“They are doing very well, now living with other monkeys of the similar age,” director of the institute Dr Mu-ming Poo told in June. He said they showed “no sign of any abnormality we can detect” at the time.

He also said Chinese scientists planned to clone more monkeys and refuted the notion that it is a step toward human cloning.


In a groundbreaking achievement experts said will usher in a new era of astronomy, scientists were able to trace the origins of a ghostly subatomic particle that travelled nearly 4 billion light-years to Earth.

For scientists, the incredibly high energy particles known as neutrinos (also called ghost particles because they’re so tiny and difficult to observe) can act like messengers from distant cosmic radiation. They travel at nearly the speed of light, can escape the densest environments like black holes and may be traced back to their source of origin.

Scientists at a research facility in Antarctica detected the neutrino during a rare interaction with an atom below the ice in September last year but the research was reported in July after scientists were able to trace it back to a galaxy with a supermassive, rapidly spinning black hole at its centre, known as a blazar.

The application of the breakthrough has scientists excited about the potential to improve our understanding of the early universe and fundamental physics. It means researchers can learn about the universe using neutrinos as well as ordinary light.


A strange fossil that looks a bit like a giant leaf, or a fingerprint the size of a coffee table, was revealed to be the remnants of a creature lived at the bottom of the ocean, without a mouth, intestines or anus — more than half a billion years ago.

From fossils uncovered from a cave in Russia, researchers identified traces of cholesterol, a signature of animal life. The feat indicated the fossils, which belong to a mysterious class called Ediacara, were some of Earth’s earliest animals, the journal Science reported in September.

“Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years” over the nature of these “bizarre fossils,” said associate professor Jochen Brocks from the ANU’s Research School of Earth Sciences.

“The fossil fat now confirms Dickinsonia as the oldest known animal fossil, solving a decades-old mystery that has been the Holy Grail of palaeontology.”


In July, it was revealed that European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter had detected a massive underground lake hiding under the surface of Mars.

A team of Italian researchers poked at the polar ice caps on the Red Planet with a radar and uncovered a lake that stretches about 20km across and 1.5km deep. Previous discoveries have only been around temporary trickles of water and so to have found a massive reservoir of liquid hidden underground was hailed as a very exciting discovery.

“This is a stunning result that suggests water on Mars is not a temporary trickle like previous discoveries but a persistent body of water that provides the conditions for life for extended periods of time,” said Alan Duffy, an associate professor at Swinburne University in Melbourne.

Being able to access water sources could help humans survive on a future crewed mission to Earth’s neighbouring planet.

There was plenty of focus on Mars this year, as debate about potential future mission aimed at colonisation intensified.

In November, NASA landed its InSight probe on the planet which will spend the next two years studying the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed.


Healthy mice that were bred from two mums and went on to have normal pups of their own, it was reported in October.

Researchers from China altered stem cells from a female mouse and injected them into the eggs of another, with 29 out of 210 embryos surviving.

Mice pups from two dads were also born using a similar but more complex approach, but they only survived for a couple of days.

The researchers were examining what makes it so challenging for mammals of the same sex to reproduce and found that some of these barriers can be overcome using stem cells and targeted gene editing.

But they warned there were still obstacles to using these methods in other mammals.


The analysis of ancient DNA this year found the first known human to have had parents of two different species.

The remains which were studied were found to have belonged to a girl who had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father, prompting headlines about an ancient-human hybrid.

The genome analysis was carried out on a bone discovered in a Siberian cave and gives us greater insight into our ancient ancestors.

Scientists already knew that Denisovans and Neanderthals must have bred with each other (and with Homo sapiens) but no one had previously found the first generation offspring.

“To find a first-generation person of mixed ancestry from these groups is absolutely extraordinary,” population geneticist Pontus Skoglund told Nature. “It’s really great science coupled with a little bit of luck.”


In research that could provide new clues in the search for the physical basis of memory, scientists from the University of California Los Angeles claimed to have succeeded in taking a simple form of memory from one sea snail, and implanting it in another.

Researchers effectively transplanted memories by transferring a form of genetic information called RNA (RNA stands for ribonucleic acid and just like DNA, RNA is vital for living beings) from specially trained snails to other snails that didn’t receive the training.

Researchers hope the science could prove useful in treating degenerative brain disorders.

“I think in the not-too-distant future, we could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder,” said lead researcher Dr David Glanzman.

Such science is very much in its infancy and it would likely be decades until researchers thought about applying it to humans. But the concept of being able to transplant your memories into another sentient being just got a tiny little bit less ridiculous.


In November, a Chinese researcher claimed he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies, sparking widespread backlash from medical and bioethics experts.

He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China said he altered the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month to try to help them resist possible future infection with the AIDS virus — a dubious goal, ethically and scientifically.

However there is no independent confirmation of what the scientist said he did, and it has not been published in a journal where other experts could review it. Dr He revealed his claim during a gene editing conference in Hong Kong.

Reaction to the claim was swift and harsh. More than 100 scientists signed a petition calling for greater oversight on gene editing experiments.

When reflecting on the year’s biggest scientific breakthroughs, Science magazine decided not to include the feat when polling its readers.

“We originally included the claim of gene-edited babies as a candidate; we have since removed it to avoid giving the mistaken impression that Science endorses this ethically fraught work,” the journal wrote.



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