Life during a global pandemic takes on a surreal quality. The ubiquitous presence of social media and a constant fire hose of coronavirus news can make it particularly hard if you're already feeling anxious.
So, we've put together a little round-up of recent science news that we find inspiring, encouraging, and worthy of note in these trying times.
1. CRISPR has been used to attempt a cure for genetic blindness for the first time
In a world first, surgeons at Oregon Health & Science Institute have used the CRISPR gene-editing technique to attempt a cure for Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare genetic condition that causes blindness in early childhood.
While we await results on how this experiment worked out, this achievement joins a list of other medical uses of the technique, including the search for a Huntington disease cure, herpes, HIV, and immunotherapy for some types of cancer.
Living at a time when medical researchers have this powerful tool at their disposal is certainly a good news item in our books.
2. 60,000 more seed samples have been added to the Arctic seed vault in Svalbard
In February, a huge stock of 60,000 seed samples was added to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault nestled inside a mountain in Norway's Svalbard archipelago, including the first-ever heirloom seed deposit by an indigenous US tribe.
Increasing deposits to this safehouse of crops reflect growing worldwide concern about potential loss of biodiversity and food security—but these actions also demonstrate a beautiful commitment to our future generations.
3. A potential universal flu vaccine has passed an important set of clinical trials
The virus strains that cause influenza are shapeshifters, constantly moving beyond our ability to immunize against them—hence, we need annual flu shots to stay ahead of the disease. A 'universal' flu vaccine would give us a huge advantage in this race, and there's now a truly promising candidate on the cards.
The vaccine, called FLU-v, has successfully passed phase 1 and phase 2 clinical trials, demonstrating its safety in human subjects; it's been found to induce immune responses that last at least 6 months. We can't wait to see the results of the next phase of trials.
4. Scientists have invented contact lenses that can correct red-green color blindness
A new type of contact lens could restore the color spectrum limitations in people whose eyes struggle to tell apart green and red hues.
This brilliant technology already exists in some cleverly designed sunglasses; soon, people might also have access to it in the highly convenient form of contacts, thanks to a team of engineers at Tel Aviv University.
5. A patient has been declared 'cured' of HIV—and it's not even the first time
Researchers have announced that for the second time ever, a patient carrying the HIV virus has been declared cured, with no trace of infection in his blood 30 months after he stopped traditional treatment, undergoing a specialized type of stem cell therapy.
The achievement doesn't constitute a generalized cure, because the patient also had a type of lymphoma that enabled him to receive this experimental treatment; but it demonstrates a real breakthrough in medical science, showing scientists are able to push the boundaries like never before.
6. Niue has been named the world's first 'Dark Sky Nation'
The tiny South Pacific nation of Niue recently accepted a unique honor, as it became the first country to be formally accredited as an International Dark Sky Place.
This accreditation is bestowed by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a conservation non-profit charged with preserving the naturally dark night-time environment, defending it from the intrusive disturbances of artificial light pollution.
There's no end of scientific research charting the negative effects of light pollution, whether on animals, plants, or human health; this honor emphasises that seeking a truly dark night sky remains as important as ever.
7. We've found a clean method for hydrogen fuel production that's 25 times more efficient
Hydrogen fuel is one of the more promising zero-emissions options around—if only we could produce it cheaply and without needing insane amounts of energy input.
Now, a team of researchers in Tokyo have managed to do just that, refining a method that produces hydrogen fuel using just a few basic ingredients, including light and a particular type of rust. A new study shows this method yields 25 times more hydrogen than existing methods.
8. There's one excellent way to store renewable energy, and we already have the necessary tech
Speaking of sustainability, one of the biggest challenges to widespread adoption of renewables remains the problem of large-scale storage. However, there is one excellent solution to this problem—pumped thermal electricity storage. This approach stores electricity by turning it into heat, then turning it back into electricity when needed using an engine.
Unlike pumped hydro, which requires specific geographic requirements, this type of storage can be built in many places, and it uses thermodynamic principles to store electricity in the form of heat. And the best part? It's already being tested in pilot plants.
9. A flawed paper that blames the sun for climate change has been retracted
In June 2019, an odd paper made waves after it was published in Scientific Reports. The scientific community was quick to voice their concerns over this flawed study, which claimed that the Sun's movements were the real cause of anthropogenic global warming.
Now, the editors of the well-known journal have corrected the scientific record, issuing a retraction notice that explains the errors, showing that even if something incorrect initially slips through peer review, the scientific process is still rigorous enough to fix the mistake. You can read about this fascinating case in full here.
10. There are 76 solutions available right now that can slow down climate change
A new report by the non-profit Project Drawdown has outlined a whopping 76 solutions the world already has at hand if we want to slow down climate change. These strategies—from shifting our means of energy production, to reducing food waste and empowering women—span across all sectors.
Furthermore, these solutions are actually cheaper than maintaining the status quo (also known as 'doing nothing'). Project Drawdown estimates that if we implemented these 76 solutions, it would result in savings of up to around US$144 trillion of avoided climate damage and pollution-related healthcare costs. Tell everyone—we can do this.