The Science News that Shaped 2019
The Science News that Shaped 2019

The Science News that Shaped 2019

A T cell discovery, “hachimoji” DNA, a new species of human, and mounting fears of espionage rounded off the list this year.

Dec 20, 2019
Kerry Grens

ABOVE: Colorized scanning electron micrographs of B and T lymphocytes (left, right) shown with a fluorescent microscopy image of the newly discovered DE cell (center).
B AND T CELL IMAGES FROM THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES; X CELL IMAGE FROM JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

Discovery of a new T cell

With all the extensive investigations scientists have conducted of the human immune system over the past century, it is astonishing that there are still new cell types to be found. Yet in May, researchers described a hybrid of B and T cells, which they named dual expresser (DE) cells, in people with type 1 diabetes. “We think [the DE cell peptide may play] a very major role during the initial phase of the disease,” Abdel Hamad, an immunologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the senior author of the study, told The Scientist at the time.

That same month, scientists also reported that humans’ natural killer cells, thought to form the innate immune response, can also keep memories of past encounters with offending antigens, much like the adaptive immune response does. The discovery challenges the basic dogma of how these cells function—another reminder there is still so much unknown even in our own blood.

Infectious diseases spread

Measles, Ebola, and polio flared up in 2019. Cases of measles in the US were the highest since the virus was declared eradicated in America in 2000, and they have been soaring in Europe and elsewhere. Public health officials say insufficient immunization, fueled by anti-vaccine sentiment, is to blame. All the while, scientists continued to learn about the virus—and just how dangerous it is. In October, researchers reported that infection with the virus that causes measles appears to leave the immune system vulnerable to infections by other pathogens. 

Thousands of people died of measles this year in Democratic Republic of Congo, where an outbreak of Ebola has also been ongoing since the 2018. Violence in the region has hampered efforts to get the Ebola epidemic under control, but newly developed drugs and vaccines administered this year may help slow Ebola’s spread.

Polio will soon have another vaccine to contend with as researchers have developed one to designed to counteract the failure of an older vaccine that allowed the virus to continue to circulate and eventually revert to virulence. Such vaccine-derived polio cases have now become more common than those caused by the wild virus, but the new vaccine, which is genetically engineered to avoid such reversion, is set to be deployed in 2020.

Fears of espionage

The long-term price we pay for having a chilly research environment far exceeds that of the few ideas stolen from us.

—Alice Huang, CaltechFears of espionage

Federal science agencies have been cracking down on researchers who violate the rules for relationships with foreign governments, in an effort to prevent other countries from stealing US intellectual property. An eye doctor at the University of California, San Diego, cancer researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center, geneticists at Emory University, and the leaders of Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida are among those have lost their jobs because of their ties to China. 

As the US government moves to strengthen defenses against espionage, researchers have voiced concerns of racial profiling, specifically, that Chinese and Chinese-American scientists will be unfairly scrutinized. Writing to The Scientist in March, Caltech biologist Alice Huang says, “The long-term price we pay for having a chilly research environment far exceeds that of the few ideas stolen from us.”

See “US-China Tensions Leave Some Researchers on Edge

First human-monkey chimeras

To “avoid legal issues,” researchers from Spain and the US developed the first human-monkey chimeras in China, a Spanish newspaper reported in July. The embryos’ development was stalled after a few weeks, but the scientists would like to grow animals whose organs could be harvested for human transplant, a goal at least one expert finds impractical. “I always made the case that it doesn’t make sense to use a primate for that. Typically they are very small, and they take too long to develop,” Pablo Ross, a veterinary researcher at the University of California, Davis, told MIT Technology Review.  

While still illegal to pursue in the US using federal research funds, human-animal chimera projects got the regulatory green light in Japan last spring. “It’s good that they now allow people to do human-animal [chimera embryos] with species like pigs and sheep,” Sean Wu, a developmental biologist at Stanford University, told The Scientist in April. But human-primate chimeras are a different, um, animal. “There’s just too many things we don’t know about when you try to chimerize two species that are so close to each other, like humans with nonhuman primates.”

A new human

Teeth of the newly named hominin Homo luzonensis
CALLAO CAVE ARCHAEOLOGY PROJECT

Speaking of new humans, scientists described an entirely new species of Homo, H. luzonensis, this year. The first bone of our newly named cousin was originally dug up in Callao Cave in the Philippines in 2007, but back then it wasn’t clear who exactly it belonged to. The discovery of more bones and teeth led scientists to conclude that the individuals were a distinct species. “It’s fantastic news. It’s not every day you get to name a new species within the human family tree,” Michael Petraglia, a professor of human evolution and prehistory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who wasn’t involved in the study, told The Scientist at the time. 

Bad money

The friendships that convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had forged with scientists, and the money he gave them for research, caused an uproar this year. Scholars quit their jobs at MIT in protest while some universities pledged to redirect the money to charitable causes. 

At the same time, the Sackler family (of oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma) came under heightened scrutiny for their role in the opioid epidemic. The Sacklers have been big donors to biomedical research over the years, and Tufts University recently decided to strip the Sackler name from its campus buildings.

See “Universities Grapple with Donor Behavior

Conferences address #metoo

Thanks to the work of survivors and activists, #metoo’s momentum carried through in 2019. Scientific conference organizers were forced to reflect on their policies for protecting attendees, especially in the archaeology field after a known harasser—banned from his own campus where he had been a professor for decades—showed up at the Society for Archaeology meeting in Albuquerque this year. Victims of David Yesner were present at the meeting and alerted staff, but the society’s response was inadequate, causing a prompt backlash on social media and a longer-term reckoning that has since resulted in a more-solidified policy. Members of the SAA voted to allow board members to ban convicted harassers from attending meetings.

See “Scientific Societies Update Policies to Address #Metoo

“A completely unknown biology”

The glycan (upper left) and RNA (lower right) are connected by an unknown intermediary in this possible structure of glycoRNA.
RYAN FLYNN

Although still in preprint form, results published this fall introduced a new aspect to cell biology: glycoRNAs, or noncoding RNA strung with complex sugars called glycans. Glycans are normally sequestered in the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi bodies, away from RNA in the cytoplasm and nucleus. “There really is no framework in biology as we know it today that would explain how RNA and glycans could ever be in the same place at the same time, much less be connected to each other,” senior author Carolyn Bertozzi, a chemical biologist at Stanford University, told The Scientist in October. “Whatever it is, it’s a completely unknown biology.” Expect to see more insight into this mysterious new cellular entity—its function, its structure, and its prevalence.

Vaping deaths

A wave of pulmonary illnesses and deaths related to vaping swept across the US this year. It wasn’t clear to clinicians at first why these cases were appearing, but months of sleuthing led investigators to conclude that vitamin E acetate added to products, especially counterfeit liquids containing THC, was a possible culprit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is continuing to investigate, as more ingredients may be to blame.

See “Scientists Study Vaping’s Harm as Second Death Reported

Synthetic DNA expanded

Researchers doubled DNA’s alphabet this year with the development of two new synthetic nucleotides, adding to two created previously, leading to what they call a “hachimoji” DNA molecule composed of four synthetic and four natural bases. The DNA successfully transcribed hachimoji RNA using a bacteriophage RNA polymerase. “This is really an exciting paper . . . a true engineering feat,” Northwestern University’s Michael Jewett, who was not involved with the research, wrote in an email to The Scientist in February.

Kerry Grens is a senior editor and the news director of The Scientist. Email her at kgrens@the-scientist.com.