At the end of 2015, Science looked back at some of the biggest science stories of the year. Now we’re looking forward, pondering which research trends and ideas are poised to create buzz in 2016—making them the scientific equivalent of the recent Star Wars movie—and which ones are losing some steam. From the rise of reusable rockets to sequencing entire ancient genomes to the rapidly spreading Zika virus to the hunt for a sidekick to the Higgs boson, we offer our best guesses—in no particular order—of the new themes that we think will take hold in 2016, shoving aside some once-sizzling topics.
Got your own ideas about what should be on this list? Share your thoughts on Twitter with #SciHotNot.
Government weather data
Government agencies such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) generally own and operate the massive, billion-dollar satellites that gather data crucial for weather forecasting. But Congress wants NOAA to forge a pilot commercial data agreement with fledgling space companies; taking data from their constellations of microsatellites, which measure temperature, pressure, and humidity by intercepting GPS signals skimming through the atmosphere.
China’s emergence as the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases has been one of the biggest climate stories of the past decade. But the spotlight may now shift to India, which is rapidly rising into the ranks of the emissions superpowers.
Two years ago, the chikungunya virus began taking Latin America by storm. Now, another virus called Zika, transmitted by the same Aedes mosquitoes, is spreading—and has been tentatively linked to a rise in microcephaly, a serious birth defect.
What if you had to destroy your jumbo jet after every transcontinental trip? Until recently, expensive rockets always went kerplunk in the ocean after delivering satellites to orbit. Now, two companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, have reverse-landed the first stages of their rockets, demonstrating the possibility of reuse—and of a dramatic reduction in the cost of space science.
Treatment upon immune damage
Evidence suggests that treating all HIV-infected people as soon as they’re diagnosed is good for both the individual and communities, by both thwarting AIDS and reducing transmission risks. When coupled with a push to use antiretrovirals as prophylaxis in uninfected people, this “treat-all” dictum has led to increasing optimism that communities can bring their AIDS epidemics to a halt.
Although U.S. regulators could approve the first gene therapy this year—for blindness—this strategy has been eclipsed in the lab by gene editing, which fixes a cell’s defective DNA instead of pasting in a new gene. The first gene-repair clinical trials, for hemophilia and cancer, are already getting underway.
Unfettered experimentation driven by pure curiosity is giving way to a debate over whether to establish “no-go” areas of science—such as using new gene-editing technologies to produce engineered babies, giving flu viruses and other pathogens new capabilities, and engineering microbes to produce illegal drugs.
For decades, supersymmetry has been particle physicists’ best guess at what lies beyond the current Standard Model. Supersymmetry posits a partner particle for every Standard Model particle—but Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has seen no sign of those partners. Some physicists now speculate that a sidekick to the Higgs boson (discovered by the LHC in 2012) will be the next step beyond.
The ITER project, which aims to build the world’s largest tokamak fusion reactor, is growing more unwieldy and expensive. Meanwhile, startup companies with alternative fusion technologies are forging ahead while stellarators and spherical tokamaks are just launching or upgrading.
Ancient mitochondrial DNA
In the past 2 years, researchers began sequencing entire nuclear genomes of ancient humans, from Neandertals to Bronze Age Europeans and Asians. These genomes offer far more information about identity, migrations, and evolution than maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA.
A potential U.K. referendum about a British exit from the European Union could threaten academic collaborations and €1 billion of Horizon 2020 funds for U.K. science. Meanwhile, Greek scientists are relieved that their country’s financial crisis did not force them out of the European Union or its single currency.
Old-fashioned rigid electronics brought us phones, tablets, and Fitbits. But research buzz has shifted to flexible electronics and the promise of gizmos such as artificial skin for prosthetics or implantable health monitors.
From 2009 to 2013, then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu tried to reinvent how the Department of Energy (DOE) addresses energy science by developing “hubs,” Bell Labs–like centers designed to tackle specific problems. Current Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has kept existing hubs but has focused on optimizing the performance of DOE’s 16 national labs.
Endangered species regulation
Some U.S. conservationists worry that listing certain endangered species—such as the greater sage grouse—under the Endangered Species Act will fuel efforts to gut the law. Instead, they are offering incentives to states and private landowners to preserve habitat in exchange for avoiding regulation.
The Food and Drug Administration is finalizing guidance to require approval for lab-developed tests—a move that it says will crack down on unreliable and potentially risky diagnostics, but that has the industry (and supporters in Congress) uneasy.
Large research vessels
Expensive, scarce ship time in the standard research fleet has long been a limiting factor in ocean research. But private ventures are lifting that constraint, whether through ship time offered by the Schmidt Ocean Institute or X Prizes offered for new robotic submersibles and sensors.
Human embryo genome editing
Plans to put human cells into animal embryos may get a green light from the United States, but negative reaction to a Chinese team’s attempted edits of human embryo DNA may curtail follow-ups.
Dye-sensitized solar cells
Hybrid solar cells—made from both organic and inorganic materials—are still the rage. Efficiency improvements have largely stalled for the dye-sensitized variety of these cells, but efficiencies for perovskite solar cells are reaching new heights.
It’s the last hurrah for White House chief science adviser John Holdren, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who have each stayed for the 44th U.S. president’s full two terms.
Nearly 200 nations have vowed to curb their emissions of greenhouse gases—and the next question will be how to monitor and verify that they are following through on their pledges. New carbon measuring satellites should help provide a global picture.