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Evading Extinction

Unless you were a Trump-loving, music despising animal hater, 2016 had something to upset pretty much everyone.

And as news broke that current mass extinction will be the greatest since the extinction of the dinosaurs, it was up to 2017 to make us feel a little better about the state of environmental affairs.

Dolly the sheep eat your heart out: cloning is about to hit the big-time

While we won’t be seeing the return of the dodo any time soon, numerous schemes to bring endangered animals back from the brink of extinction will kick in this year. Dolly the sheep eat your heart out: cloning is about to hit the big-time.

Genetic and stem cell technologies will be used this year to try and rescue a number of endangered species. The northern white rhino’s population in Kenya has been reduced to just three infertile individuals. A plan involving stem cell technologies and assisted reproduction has been devised to create new rhinos and help the recovery of the species.

Across the ocean, the critically endangered black-footed ferret is being given a helping hand in North America by in vitro experiments designed to tackle disease resistance to plagues.

 

The Great American Eclipse

On August 21st 2017 Americans spanning the continental United States will be turning their gaze skywards as a total solar eclipse darkens the sky for the first time in almost a century.

The moon will cast an arching shadow from the East Coast to the West, tracing a line of totality last seen in 1918. Over the course of just one-and-a half hours, millions across the States will be treated to the remarkable cosmic event.

Total solar eclipses occur when the moon is positioned between the Earth and the sun, appearing for a short amount of time to totally obscure the sun’s light.

Faroe Islands Total Solar Eclipse (HD video frame grab) by David Byrne
Faroe Islands Total Solar Eclipse (HD video frame grab) by David Byrne

Although the Sun is 400 times larger than the moon, the fact that the Moon is closer to the Earth makes them appear to be the same size, and hence the overlap we see.

They occur approximately every 18 months somewhere on Earth, but any area of the world (a city or town, for example) is treated to a total eclipse just once in 375 years.

As such, it’s not entirely a surprise that scientists and the public alike are gearing up for what is sure to be a long-awaited spectacle.

 

Gene Editing and CRISPR

2017 is set to herald a golden age of genetic engineering, with CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic) technology leading the charge.

CRISPR is a genome editing tool that utilizes unusual RNA sequences (messenger cells) used to protect bacteria from threats such as viruses. Scientists can manipulate the sequences to form a complex with DNA chopping enzymes. The complexes seek out short DNA sequences and exclusively attack them.

It is hoped that these editing techniques will be used to treat diseases with a genetic component, such as cancer

So, forget arms races or space races: the newest and most exciting contest of the 21st century has been set.

At the end of last year, a lab in Sichuan University, China, became the first to successfully inject genetically modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer, fueling a biomedical duel between the US and China.

With trials beginning in Philadelphia, USA, and Beijing, China, it really will be a race to see who can make this exciting technology work first.

 

Three-Person Baby Race

2016 saw the birth of the world’s first baby born with a new controversial technique using the DNA from three people to create in vitro embryos.

The technique called ‘spindle nuclear transfer’ aims to prevent babies from inheriting mitochondrial diseases from their mother. Eggs with damaged mitochondria are collected and the nucleus removed.

IVF by DrKontogianniIVF, pixabay.com
IVF by DrKontogianniIVF, pixabay.com

The nucleus containing genetic information is inserted into a donor egg with healthy mitochondria. The healthy egg can then be fertilized by sperm, and the resulting embryo implanted into the mother via simple IVF.

Although controversial, the birth of a healthy baby has excited scientists the world over and will fast-track research into three-parent babies.

While ethical issues remain a major hurdle for practitioners, mitochondrial disease is not uncommon and so the ramifications of not implementing such technologies will be carefully weighed up against medical ethics.

The journey to end mitochondrial disease will not be an easy one, but 2017 should see the start of some very interesting developments.

 

Saturn’s Shuttle

NASA launched the Cassini spaceship almost two decades ago, on October 15 1997.

Since its insertion into Saturn’s orbit, Cassini has provided us with a huge array of exciting discoveries about the beautiful planet and its many moons.

From discovering lakes on Titan to seeing new rings for the first time, the shuttle has provided NASA with some of the most spectacular cosmic knowledge to date.

The first few months of 2017 will continue to bring a plethora of fascinating discoveries

Cassini will continue a series of 22 orbits carrying the spaceship close to Saturn’s poles, providing scientists with an unprecedented final opportunity to study Saturn’s incredible ring system.

April 2017 will see Cassini move into the final phase of its mission, executing 22 daring loops passing through the gap between Saturn and its innermost rings.

And then, just a month shy of reaching 20 years of space travel, Cassini will make its final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, bringing to an end one of NASA’s most successful missions to date.

 

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