Top 10 scientific breakthroughs of 2010

Just what it says up there.


Handedness in cats

This is an older article, but I woke up to a gift of half a mouse my cat left for me on the carpet last night, so I figured a feline-related story was called for.

Seems that testosterone levels in cats impart a preference for the use of left or right paws.

A test for cats consisting of tasks of varying difficulty – from playing with a toy to manipulating a piece of food out of a tight spot – found that, under pressure to complete a tricky task, toms tended to use their left hands and females, their right.

More detailed overview here.

Picture via the inestimably marvellous

Stem cell-based therapies

I went a little bit link crazy a couple of days ago, after I listened to a lecture on stem cells (sometimes called progenitor cells) and cloning. Much of what the presenter discussed sounded like science fiction: healing spinal injuries, reversing retinal damage, replacing damaged cardiac or brain tissue following heart attacks or strokes…

But it turns out this is all current science. Happening right now. Mostly in trials using mice and the like, but in a few noteworthy cases, in actual clinical human trials.

Anyway, if you are comfortable with the basics of embryology and cloning, you might find the links interesting. Otherwise, read up on the basics of stem cells – what they are, how they were found, what they can do – and then get ready to have your mind blown away.

Spinal Cord Injury – Dana Foundation

Regenerative benefit demonstrated in spinal cord injury

Reconstructing neural circuits using transplanted neural stem cells

Retina created from embryonic stem cells

Repairing the optic nerve using stem cells

Bio-engineered electronics

Electronic components are continually shrinking – just think of laptops & mobile phones in the last few years – but there is a limit and even now, the improvements required of industrial processes to maintain this trend are becoming increasingly expensive and old ones dreadfully outdated.

One possible solution would be to replace these industrial techniques with ones that use biological processes that self -assemble and are relatively cheap.

For instance, this article describes a technique whereby a specially engineered virus is coated with chemicals and sandwiched between other chemical layers to make a tiny battery that could be ‘printed’ onto any conducting surface! Some more background, also at Ars Technica, on engineering using viruses can be read here.

Photo from – lovely, isn’t it?

Artificial retinas on the way?

“Conformally wrapping surfaces with stretchable sheets of optoelectronics provides a practical route for integrating well-developed planar device technologies onto complex curvilinear objects.”

Say wha’?

That sentence, while almost incomprehensible to mere mortals, nevertheless heralds an interesting development in the technology that could prove to be the basis for artificial retinas.

Research at the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute has resulted in a camera that uses stretchable silicon as a surface for an array of miniture light-sensitive elements.

Stem cell success

The Age reported this week on research that has achieved one of the long-hoped for results of stem-cell research.

Undifferentiated stem cells, removed from a patient with ALS, or motor-neurone disease, were induced to mature into nerve cells genetically identical to the patient’s own cells.

While therapeutic use of the resultant cells is a long way off, this is an important way-point on the journey.

Strange properties of glass explained

Although glass is a hard, seeemingly solid substance, we’ve known for a while that the atoms are actually able to move but jammed, like cars in gridlock.

Because atoms are too small to see directly, scientists have approached the problem of exploring the structure of glass by using a substance (called a colloidal gel) that behaves and look like glass at a molecular level but forms structures large enough to see. What they’ve found is that the icosahedral shapes formed by the atoms in glass as it cools prevent the atoms from crystallising into a regular lattice.

As , the Univeristy of Bristol’s Paddy Royall explains:

“An icosahedron is like a 3-D pentagon, and just as you cannot tile a floor with pentagons, you cannot fill 3-D space with icosahedrons… Without a regular structure, the atoms are caught between the solid and liquid phases.”

In future, this understanding could be applied to the manufacturing of materials that are light, strong and flexible materials that don’t experience stresses like most metals.