Genes to geoengineering: 4 science stories to watch in 2018 – CNET

The past year saw breakthroughs that changed how we see and feel the universe at the largest scales and also could revolutionize how we manipulate the tiniest bits of our own bodies to heal ourselves. But 2018 looks to be one heck of a follow-up year to 2017 when it comes to science. From opening new fronts in the battle to slow climate change to becoming much closer to our computers, here are four areas that’re sure to advance in the next 12 months.


TESS could map the places worth checking for signs of life.


Seeing more of the universe
Many of the science stories from the past decade that’ve most captivated the public imagination come from outer space, which we now know is filled with planets. The secret of the exoplanet revolution is that it’s come despite the fact many of our most powerful telescopes like Hubble are aging and some, like the Kepler Space Telescope, have been breaking down for years

This status quo begins to change drastically in 2018 with NASA’s launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), currently scheduled for sometime between March and June. TESS will be followed into space by Hubble’s far-more powerful successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, in 2019. The pair of next-generation space observatories will team up with other telescopes to push our understanding of what’s beyond our world even further, taking a more complete census of exoplanets and even checking them for possible signs of life.

Perhaps most exciting for the coming year, a worldwide array known as the Event Horizon Telescope could produce the first image of that most enigmatic of space objects, a black hole. 

Closer to home, 2018 could also be the year that we expand the map of our own solar system, as intensifying efforts to spot direct evidence of a distant ninth planet beyond Pluto could yield results. 

Confronting climate change
A pretty clear trend has been established over the last few decades: The planet is getting warmer and extreme weather events appear to be intensifying. But 2018 could be a year that serious solutions begin to emerge. A novel idea to capture heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air and use it for things like manufacturing carbon composites will move from concept to commercial operation as more companies like Global Thermostat fire up their operations next year.  

More-controversial approaches that fall under the ominous umbrella of geoengineering will also move forward in 2018. Scientists from Harvard plan to launch a small-scale experiment that will spray a fine mist of materials into the upper atmosphere via a high-altitude balloon and then measure how well they reflect the sun’s rays.

Computers get further into our heads
In 2017 we learned Elon Musk backed a company working on a brain-computer interface. Technology to allow our minds to communicate directly with machines will continue to move forward in 2018. It’s already proved helpful as a means of rehabilitation for those with disabling injuries or ailments, but the US military is also funding research into possible defense applications that will surely fuel many a science fiction nightmare scenario. 

With Musk, the military and the medical field among those working on the mind-melding innovation, we’re sure to hear more soon. The next Brain-Computer Interface Society International Meeting, in May, should provide an interesting glimpse into the future of our increasingly intimate relationship with our machines.

Getting to know our genome
Gene-editing wonders like CRISPR/Cas9 have already caught our attention and begun to see practical applications, but it’s really just the beginning. In 2018, the UK’s 100,000 Genomes Project will finish up sequencing, well, 100,000 patient genomes, leading to new insights in treating rare diseases and more widespread scourges like cancer.

Meanwhile, in both Europe and the US, the first human trials of CRISPR-based treatments are set to begin in 2018: It could be the start of nothing short of a revolution in medicine. From tackling killer diseases, other ambitious efforts will move on to addressing aging itself. 

Though scientific discovery and innovation often hit roadblocks, it’s hard not to get excited about 2018’s potential. 

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