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January 11, 2016

Five of the biggest science breakthroughs in 2015, and a look to the future

Although you might still be nursing a post-holiday hangover, don't close the chapter on 2015 just yet. The past year was chock full of dark, stranger-than-fiction news stories – but in the world of science and technology, landmark research in 2015 drummed up plenty of excitement and optimism for the future.

Without further ado, these are my picks for the five breakthroughs in science and technology that mattered in 2015:


Although CRISPR (an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats”) was first described in 1987 by Japanese researchers, 2015 was the year this genome-editing technique truly rose to prominence. Like a word processing application, CRISPR is an inexpensive, easy-to-use system that can search for, cut, and paste pieces of DNA in any living organism – including humans.

Last year, a group in China used CRISPR to genetically modify human embryos for the first time in history. The experiment caused an uproar among many researchers who declared that it was too soon for such manipulation in humans, spurring an international summit in December to discuss the scientific and ethical implications of human gene editing. But such concern is balanced by excitement surrounding the technique, with endless application possibilities like treating genetic diseases, creating more robust crops, using animal organs for transplant, and controlling populations of pathogen-spreading pests.


Yeasts are the humble, unicellular microorganisms used to leaven bread and brew some of our favorite alcoholic beverages. But last year saw the birth of a new and unexpected application for yeast – opioid manufacturing.

In August, researchers from Stanford University announced their landmark experiment in which genetically engineered yeast was successfully manipulated to produce opioids. To pull off such a feat, they tinkered with the genome of ordinary baker's yeast so that it converts sugar into thebaine or hydrocodone instead of carbon dioxide and ethanol. Thebaine can be further refined to create oxycodone (OxyContin), while hydrocodone (Vicodin) is commonly used as a painkiller, and both are currently sourced from opium poppies.

While the fermentation takes only a few days, the study reported it would take 4,400 gallons of bioengineered yeast to produce a single dose. So we won't have to worry about home-brewed heroin anytime soon, but the technique could be improved in the future as a faster, potentially cheaper way to produce plant-based medicine.


Machine learning algorithms are already being used to determine everything from our Netflix watch recommendations to which posts show up on our Facebook News Feed. What distinguishes machine learning algorithms is their ability to learn important features of a dataset by themselves in order to make predictions, as opposed to a programmer having to explain everything directly through lines of code.

Some experts believe medicine is the next frontier for machine learning – as in, a computer may diagnose you in the future instead of a human doctor. If you feed a program many millions of patient medical records, along with what is known about diseases from research so far, theoretically it should be able to learn how to pick out anomalies like cancer or diabetes. For example, last year IBM bought three healthcare data companies to beef up the medical diagnostic capabilities of Watson, its famous artificial intelligence technology.

While machine learning programs probably won't replace human physicians anytime soon, as computers continue to become faster and cheaper, we are more likely to see a man/machine, tag-team diagnosis in the doctor's office of the future.


Although autonomous cars have existed since the 1980s, last year saw an explosion of interest in self-driving cars. In June, Google began test-driving their latest prototype vehicles on the streets of Mountain View, CA – with “safety drivers” on board, just in case – and later expanded to Austin, Texas. Other companies dabbling in self-driving cars include Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Audi.

An analysis from BI Intelligence predicts a huge growth in popularity of self-driving cars over the next five years, with an estimate of 10 million cars of this type on the road by 2020.

Besides being able to read the news and sip coffee on a morning commute, self-driving cars have other benefits. Safety is a big one – they can safely get you home after a night out drinking, or take the wheel if you become incapacitated through a heart attack or accidentally fall asleep. Many factors that cause auto accidents are overwhelmingly driven by human error: driver inattention, alcohol impairment, perceptual errors, and decision errors.


One of the most awe-inspiring stories of the year came from the New Horizons team at NASA, whose spacecraft finally reached the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015 after a nine-year journey.

New Horizons approached Pluto and its moon Charon as early as January, but the pinnacle of the project came when the spacecraft completed the first close-up flyby of the system in July. The photos were incredibly stunning, depicting details of this faraway world never seen before by man. Pluto's surface boasted mountains, valleys, fog, and vast ice plains – all to remind us that even a celestial body much smaller than our own can still be capable of immense beauty and complexity.

This one-of-a-kind mission not only reveals more about how dwarf planets are formed, but also helps facilitate our understanding of how our solar system evolved over time. New Horizons will continue to study Pluto and its moons before heading toward another Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69 in 2019 and then exiting the solar system in a few decades.