WIRED’s Guide to the Year in Biology and Medicine
Biology’s breakout star this year is definitely CRISPR, a precise genome-editing tool that has inspired talk of “designer babies,” hundreds of millions of dollars poured into CRISPR companies, and an international summit about the ethics of it all.
So it’s pretty hard to top CRISPR, but biology had plenty of other big stories in 2015. In fact, we’ve got (“female Viagra”), death (rhinos), and drugs (yeast heroin). And also poop. Keep reading for the most important events in health and biology this year.
It’s All About Crispr
2015 was the year Crispr went from being an obscure lab tool to provoking headlines about designer babies. In April, Chinese scientists used the gene-editing technique to fix mutations in human embryos, which were nonviable and never intended to be born. No matter, the international firestorm provoked a gene editing summit in Washington, DC. And it’s not just humans: Scientists have Crispr’d mosquitoes to fight malaria, too. If Crispr is looking spectacularly powerful, no wonder two groups are bitterly fighting over the patent for it.
The Microbiome Is Gross, But It’s Here to Stay
By now, you already know the microbiome’s deal and 2015 only further cemented its importance: The CDC is sequencing poop to study hospital-acquired infections. The microbiome may be linked to asthma. Airplane poop might be used to track outbreaks. And so on. But what we really want to talk about is clouds of fart bacteria right? Because, yuck, that is a real thing and some intrepid microbiologists decided to study it this year.
Scientists Debate Deextinction
After the death of Nola at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park this year, only three northern white rhinos are left on the planet. Humans have poached the northern white rhino to almost certain extinction, but one uncertain glimmer of hope remains: Frozen sperm and cells from dead animals could be used to resurrect the northern white rhino—if scientists figure out how. Nola’s death comes in the middle of a debate of de-extinction, in which scientists have nominated creatures as lofty as the wooly mammoth.
Antibiotic Resistance Continues to Spread
Since when did bacteria get their own Presidential Advisory Council? Since they become antibiotic resistant and, well, a real threat to public health. In 2015, the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria convened its first meeting. Chinese microbiologists discovered resistance to the absolute last-resort antibiotic. And, don’t you forget, resistance to other antibiotics continued to spread.
Outbreaks Emphasize the Importance of Vaccination
Disneyland was definitely not the happiest place on Earth a year ago. This January, public health officials reported a cluster of measles cases at Disneyland that began the month before. The outbreak would eventually grow to over 100 cases, resurrecting the rare disease in the public consciousness and exposing danger that the unvaccinated pose to, yes, even people who have had the measles vaccine.
What Can’t You Do With Yeast?
For synthetic biologists, yeasts are microscopic factories—churning out useful little molecules like vanillin or rose oil or, uh, even heroin, if you know how to insert the right genes. This year, scientists figured out how to coax yeast in making opiates, and they soon realized making heroin was the natural, if illegal, next step. In less criminal worlds, synthetic biology companies are indeed using yeast to make flavors and fragrances.
Ebola Remains Surprisingly Resilient
The long-smoldering Ebola outbreak finally went out this year—or did it? Doctors in West Africa are finding that the Ebola virus is surprisingly resilient, hiding out in places like the sperm or eyes of survivors. And Ebola survivors themselves sometimes experience lingering symptoms. Meanwhile, the race to find a cure is on, and it may come from the blood of survivors.
Avian Flu Outbreak Spreads Across the Country
Humans aren’t (un)lucky enough to be the only ones to have epidemics. This spring, poultry farms had to kill their birds by the millions after avian flu started spreading through the Midwest. Egg prices shot up. People even talked of ham for Thanksgiving, though the turkey farmers did an admirable job of recovering from the outbreak. An avian flu vaccine is now available, though the vaccine itself may not be enough to guarantee avian flu won’t come back.
Planned Parenthood Videos Spark Debate
The political drama over undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood officials speaking, sometimes callously, about providing fetal tissue for research shone a light on the rare but irreplaceable role of fetal tissue in science. But scientists feared to speak publicly their research, afraid it would ignite another fire.
The FDA Approves Female Viagra, But No One Seems to Want It
Perhaps no drug was approved to greater fanfare this year than Addyi, the so-called female Viagra. Dig into the details, though, and Addyi is not a very effective drug. The FDA had even previously rejected it twice. Perhaps what’s most usual is how Addyi’s manufacturer created a social media campaign riding on feminism to marshall the support for the drug’s approval.