Tumultuous political change will shape the course of science in the new year. U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is expected to continue working to dismantle science-based environmental regulations. The United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union has posed unresolved questions about research funding and migration of scientists. And China's push to become a scientific and economic leader is sure to affect how, and where, research is done. As these broad trends play out, Science's news staff predicts specific areas of research and policy likely to be in the news this year.
A look at a monster black hole
An international team of astronomers took a snapshot in April 2017 of the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy. In the coming months, they hope to discover how well the picture came out. The Event Horizon Telescope team marshaled the forces of six radio observatories—a total of 80 dishes stretching from Hawaii to Spain to the South Pole. This multitude was needed to get sufficient resolution to image the black hole, which, though huge in mass (the equivalent of 4 million suns), is surprisingly small in volume (with a diameter less than half the distance from Mercury to the sun). After processing and correlating the data, they will obtain either a glorious silhouette of the black hole against the brilliant matter swirling around it or, as in earlier attempts using fewer telescopes, a tantalizing blur.
New clues from ancient DNA
New sources of ancient DNA should amplify the power of this molecular relic to shed light on human ancestors. Bones are the usual source of ancient human DNA, but last spring, scientists announced that they had managed to pick it up from cave sediments. That achievement may power a boom in studies tracing Neandertal, Denisovan, or modern human DNA to particular sites and artifacts, further detailing our ancestors' interactions with other archaic humans. And although most ancient DNA has come from cold climates, where it degrades slowly, results from warmer spots are emerging thanks to better sampling and analytic techniques. Ancient DNA from Africa may reveal new clues to our species's origin and diversity, and data from South America and Asia could uncover the paths humans took as they settled the globe. Other studies will zero in on the origins of Italians, Jews, Palestinians, and people from India.
Epidemics make a return
Epidemics are hard to predict, but recent years have seen a resurgence of old foes, and it is likely the world will witness more in 2018. Wherever conflicts or other crises lead to breakdown of sanitation, vaccination, or the health system generally, defeated diseases return. There are fears of a yellow fever outbreak in Nigeria, where widely scattered cases have popped up, suggesting there is ongoing transmission in a large area. Diphtheria is staging a comeback among the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and sickening hundreds in war-torn Yemen, which had not seen cases in a quarter-century. The cholera outbreak in Yemen is the biggest in modern history, with 1 million suspected cases in 2017 alone. Stockpiles of cholera and yellow fever vaccine are limited, but a new cholera vaccine manufacturer may help ease the shortage.
A test for quantum computing
Physicists may soon reach a major milestone in the decades-long quest to build a quantum computer, which instead of flipping ordinary bits would rely on subtler phenomena, such as the interference of quantum waves, to perform calculations. Researchers at Google and other laboratories are racing to build a quantum computer big enough to solve a test problem that would overwhelm ordinary computers. Such a demonstration of "quantum supremacy" would prove that the devices can do things that conventional computers cannot. But it will be years before quantum computers have enough power and reliability to achieve some of the much-hyped practical applications of such machines—including cracking current internet encryption schemes.
A big health study gets rolling
This spring, the U.S. National Institutes of Health will hit the launch button on its most ambitious project ever: a long-term study of at least 1 million Americans that will explore the interplay between genes, lifestyle, the environment, and health. The projected 10-year, $4 billion All of Us study, proposed by then-President Barack Obama in 2015 as part of a push for personalized medicine, has already enrolled more than 12,000 participants for pilot testing. By the end of this year, study leaders aim to sharply increase that number and ensure that at least 50% of volunteers are from groups underrepresented in biomedical research. Persuading large numbers of people from minority groups that have been ignored or even mistreated historically in biomedical studies to share their medical records and genetic data with researchers may be a tall order.
A court ruling on gene editing
This year, the European Union’s Court of Justice is expected to decide how to regulate crops modified with CRISPR and similar gene-editing tools. The United States moved ahead in this field in 2016 when it green-lighted one such crop: a humble white mushroom that scientists modified by removing a short DNA sequence to prevent browning. The agency decided the mushroom was not subject to regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, unlike previous genetic engineering techniques, gene editing does not insert foreign DNA from viruses or bacteria to alter a plant’s function. The court case in Europe, where public opposition to GMOs runs high, will determine whether an existing EU regulation permits a similar exception for CRISPR-edited crops.
Next steps for Brexit
The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in 2019 has raised so many unanswered questions, including its effects on the research world, that we’re highlighting it for the second year in a row. Negotiations with Brussels in the coming year will be critical in resolving issues such as trade, immigration, and the terms under which the United Kingdom might participate in EU research funding programs. December brought some good news for U.K. research: EU scientists already living in the United Kingdom can remain there post-Brexit, and the United Kingdom will remain in Horizon 2020, the EU research program, until it ends in 2020.
Europe crafts research megaplan
The European Commission’s next ambitious funding program for research and innovation will start taking shape this year. The 7-year program, to begin in 2021, follows Horizon 2020, which provided €77 billion between 2014 and 2020. After decades of steady increases, the European Union’s research budget now faces the fallout of Brexit: a hole of €10 billion or €11 billion when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in 2019. National governments, industry, and academia have begun lobbying for what they want to see in the plan.
RNA treatments move forward
Scientists aiming to turn RNA molecules into therapies are entering this year with new optimism, after years of frustration. RNA-based drugs could treat a host of genetic diseases by intervening in the cellular process that turns DNA’s messages into proteins. But it has proved tricky to sneak these delicate RNA payloads past the body’s defenses and into the desired tissue while avoiding toxic effects from their delivery vehicles. In September, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals announced that its small RNA molecules silenced the gene that causes the progressive disease hereditary ATTR amyloidosis in a successful phase III trial. Ionis Pharmaceuticals recently announced that an RNA approach called antisense reduced toxic brain proteins in a phase I trial to treat Huntington disease. And several ongoing clinical trials will test messenger RNA molecules that could turn cells into factories of therapeutic proteins.
Shots may treat HIV
More than 30 antiretroviral (ARV) drugs have come to market to treat HIV, and many combinations enable infected people to live near-normal life spans. But the pills work only if taken, and many infected people have difficulty adhering to their daily regimens. Later this year, several large studies are expected to report whether injectable, long-lasting ARVs given once every 4 weeks work as well as pills taken daily. Studies of monkeys suggest injected ARVs might last 3 months, and human studies also are now examining long-acting monoclonal antibodies that target HIV. These injections could be a game changer for prevention, too, as ARVs taken by uninfected people—so-called pre-exposure prophylaxis—derail transmissions.
Planning a moon return
President Donald Trump directed NASA to return U.S. astronauts to the moon, but it may be crowded by the time they get there. Both India and China are planning to put down landers on the moon during the year (the Chandrayaan-2 and Chang’e 4 missions, respectively) and five companies are vying to deposit rovers there before the end of March to claim the Google Lunar X-Prize. Launch company SpaceX may even shoot two space tourists around the moon before NASA’s giant rocket, the Space Launch System, makes its first uncrewed flight, in December at the earliest.
In pursuit of new particles
Keep an eye out for clues to new particles from the world’s largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. In 2012, physicists there first glimpsed the Higgs boson, the last missing piece in the standard model of particles and forces. But so far, scientists haven’t spotted what they want even more: new particles beyond those in the standard model. Instead of trying to see new particles directly, researchers working with the LHC beauty experiment study the decays of familiar particles called B mesons, which contain a massive bottom quark and lighter antiquark. Rates of certain decays don’t quite match those predicted by the standard model. The anomalies could point indirectly to new particles flitting in and out of existence within the B mesons—a hint that scientists are eager to pursue.
FDA restricts stem cell therapies
Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) signaled that it would crack down on clinics that offer unproven stem cell treatments for conditions ranging from knee injuries to neurological disease. In 2017 the agency finalized guidelines about which products must go through its premarket approval process. FDA also issued a warning letter to one stem cell company and seized unauthorized vaccines from another. Advocates for greater oversight are now watching whether other clinics flying under the regulatory radar—which potentially number in the hundreds—will face any consequences.
Scientists run for office
Energized by their opposition to the science and environmental policies of President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, many U.S. researchers have decided to take their activism to the next level by running for office. Mostly novice politicians, and almost all Democrats, they are hoping their scientific credentials will be an asset with voters. A science-friendly political action committee has already raised $2 million for national, state, and local races—a record amount for such a cause—and helped train the candidates in the basics of running a campaign. Many will likely be derailed in crowded primaries, and none is a favorite to win in November. But their commitment to electoral politics adds a new element to the 2018 election season.
Curated and edited by Jeffrey Brainard.