New Delhi: This year, scientists moved closer to bringing dead organs to life. Another set of researchers pushed the barriers of reality to create life without a sperm and an ovary. We’ve figured out how to generate more energy than what was used to derive it through nuclear fusion. And, we celebrated the discovery of three new sub-atomic particles.
ThePrint looks at some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in 2022.
Nuclear fusion in lab
For the first time, scientists achieved ‘fusion ignition’ in a controlled setting in a lab — a feat that took decades of research. The US Department of Energy (DOE) and its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) made history this year by producing more energy from a nuclear fusion reaction than the energy used to drive it.
The achievement paves the way for clean nuclear energy and may also have implications for the US defense program.
Fusion is the process by which two light nuclei combine to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy. Our Sun and all stars are fueled by fusion reactions.
The DOE scientists used a set of 192 lasers to deliver 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy onto a pea-sized gold cylinder containing a frozen pellet of the hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium.
The laser’s pulse of energy caused the capsule to collapse, reaching temperatures only seen in stars and thermonuclear weapons. As a result, hydrogen isotopes fuse into helium, releasing additional energy and creating a cascade of fusion reactions.
The laboratory’s analysis suggests that the reaction released some 3.15 MJ of energy — roughly 54 percent more than what was used to create the reaction, and more than double the previous record of 1.3 MJ.
Although fusion reactions have been achieved before, this is the first time that the reaction produced more energy than it consumed.
Reviving dead organs
Challenging the age-old notion that cardiac death is irreversible, scientists from the Yale University in the US managed to restore blood circulation and cellular activity in the vital organs of the pigs, an hour after death.
The research paves the way for preserving vital organs in dead bodies for longer periods of time, in turn making more organs available for transplants for the needy.
The study, published in August, described how a system called OrganEx pumped a solution of blood and 13 other compounds throughout the bodies of dead animals. The system helped slow the decomposition of the bodies, and restored some organ functions.
This included heart contraction and activity in the liver and kidneys. The system was also able to preserve the integrity of some brain tissue — although there was no indication of restored consciousness.
The breakthrough also raises ethical questions about how death is currently defined in the medical field.
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Creating new life — without sperms or eggs
Using stem cells from mice, researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK have created model embryos that form a brain, a beating heart and the foundation of all the other organs of the body.
The research paves the way for creating new life without the traditional in-vitro fertilization, which requires a sperm and an egg cell.
Stem cells can develop into almost any cell type in the body. The team from Cambridge guided the three types of stem cells found in early mammalian development to the point where they start ‘interacting’. By inducing the expression of a particular set of genes and establishing a unique environment for their interactions, the researchers were able to get the stem cells to ‘talk’ to each other.
The stem cells self-organized into structures that progressed through the successive developmental stages until they had beating hearts and the foundations of the brain, as well as the yolk sac where the embryo develops and gets nutrients from in its first weeks. The models reached the point where the entire brain, including the anterior portion, began to develop.
While the current research was carried out in mouse models, the researchers are developing similar human models with the potential to be directed towards the generation of specific organ types — to understand mechanisms behind crucial processes that will be otherwise impossible to study in real embryos.
Three new elementary particles discovered
The international Large Hadron Collider beauty (LHCb) collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered three never-before-seen subatomic particles.
The world’s largest particle collider was switched on in July after a break of three years, and almost immediately resulted in new discoveries. The research added a new kind of “pentaquark” and the first-ever pair of “tetraquarks”.
Quarks are elementary particles and come in six flavors: up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom. They usually combine together in groups of twos and threes to form particles known as hadrons such as the protons and neutrons that make up atomic nuclei. More rarely, however, they can also combine into four-quark and five-quark particles, or “tetraquarks” and “pentaquarks”.
These exotic hadrons were predicted by theorists at the same time as conventional hadrons, about six decades ago. However, they had not been observed until recently in the LHCb.
Most of the exotic hadrons discovered in the past two decades are tetraquarks or pentaquarks containing a charm quark and a charm antiquark, with the remaining two or three quarks being an up, a down, or a strange quark, or their antiquarks.
The latest discoveries include new kinds of exotic hadrons. The first kind is a pentaquark made up of a charm quark and a charm antiquark and an up, a down and a strange quark. It is the first pentaquark found to contain a strange quark.
The second kind is a doubly electrically charged tetraquark. It is composed of a charm quark, a strange antiquark, and an up quark and a down antiquark, and it was spotted together with its neutral counterpart. The new tetraquarks represent the first-ever pair of tetraquarks.
China’s perennial rice
Just like trees that bear fruits year after year, food grains that do not need to be replanted after every harvest could save money and labor.
Researchers in China have now developed a variety of perennial rice, PR23, that will do away with the need to clear out fields and sow new seeds every season.
Once planted, PR23 can be harvested without tillage for the next three to four years. From the second season, farmers do not need to buy seeds, cultivate seedlings, plow and transplant, but only need to make field management and harvest.
Unlike wheat or corn, all rice is perennial to some extent — that is rice roots sprout new stems after harvest. However, the second growth has a lower yield than the first, which is why farmers plant new seedlings.
Researchers developed PR23 by crossing an Asian variety of rice with a wild, perennial relative from Nigeria. While this was made available to farmers in 2018, over the last four years its benefits became clear. In a study published by researchers at the Yunnan University, researchers showed that the rice continued to produce high yields of 6.8 tons per hectare for four years, after which the yields declined and the crop needed to be replanted.
The trial on the other effects of the rice is still ongoing, and by next year, the team hopes to have more insights into how farming with PR23 affects the growth of fungi and pathogens in the soil.
Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan
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