The Australian Science Media Centre's top 10 science stories of 2016

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From the Zika virus and 'three-parent' babies, to an Antarctic marine reserve and a trip to Jupiter, 2016 was a year of really big science yarns, and an exciting time for scientists and science fans alike. Every year, the AusSMC picks its Top Ten Science Stories of the year - think of it as our Christmas gift to the world, and our contribution to the traditional season of listicles. Scroll down to see our pick of 2016's best and biggest science tales. Coming soon, our Top Ten Australian Science Stories of 2016, and that old favourite, our Top Ten Weird Science Stories of the year too.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre

Media Release

From: Australian Science Media Centre

Zika went viral

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First discovered in 1947, most of us were unaware of the Zika virus until 2016, when, in January, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a public health emergency of international concern. Zika had spread from an initial outbreak in Brazil, reaching across the Americas and the Caribbean. The symptoms of Zika, which is spread by Anopheles mosquitoes, are generally harmless - a mild fever. But, in March, scientists confirmed that the virus could occassionally cause Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome - a severe neurological disorder. Even more worryingly, some mums-to-be who caught the virus were giving birth to children with unusually small heads and serious brain damage, a condition called microcephaly, and Zika was confirmed as the cause in September. Several countries advised women to avoid getting pregnant during the outbreak, and concerns were also raised about visitors and athletes attending the Olympic Games in Rio. In October, the Federal Health Department said there were 76 confirmed cases in Australia, but only in travellers who had picked it up abroad. Reassuringly, there’s no evidence Zika can spread within Australia. Then, in November, the WHO declared that Zika was no longer a public health emergency, but said the virus is “here to stay".

We briefed the media on Zika in January

Physicists got chirpy when colliding black holes gave us a (gravitational) wave

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Excited physicists, including several Australians, announced in February that they’d detected faint ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves for the first time, confirming a prediction made by Albert Einstein in 1916. The waves, picked up by a network of detectors stationed around the world as part of The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) scientific collaboration, were the echoes of two gigantic black holes smashing into each other a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. They made a peculiar ‘chirping’ sound when they reached the scientists’ instruments, sparking a social media campaign by an Australian astrophysicist, encouraging us all to 'chirp for LIGO'. Then, in June, the existence of gravitational waves was proved beyond doubt when the second signature of colliding black holes chirped too. The scientists detected the gravitational waves by looking for miniscule changes in the distances between pairs of mirrors.

We asked experts to explain the significance of gravitational waves

We were introduced to the word's first 'three-parent' bub

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In a surprise announcement at a fertility conference in September, US scientists introduced the world’s first ‘three-parent baby’, a five-month-old boy born using an in vitro fertilisation (IVF) technique called mitochondrial DNA transfer. The technique was used to prevent the baby from developing a disease called Leigh syndrome, which he risked inheriting from faulty DNA in his mother's mitochondria – the cell’s energy factories. The scientists used a technique called spindle nuclear transfer, which involves transplanting the nucleus of the mother's egg into a donor egg with healthy mitochondria that has had its own nucleus removed. Because mitochondria have their own small amount of DNA, the fertilised egg and embryo contain genetic material from three different people. The announcement was highly controversial because these techniques have not been approved for use in most countries; the scientists had carried out the work in Mexico, where regulation is notoriously scant.

We asked experts to comment on the announcement

Juno went on a jaunt to Jupiter

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After a truly epic five-year journey through 2.8 bn km of space, including a rather cool slingshot around Earth that boosted its speed by 14,000 km per hour, NASA’s Juno probe arrived triumphantly in orbit around Jupiter in July. The plucky solar-powered craft will spend 20 months orbiting the gas giant, sending back data that will help explain how our solar system formed. In September, Juno sent back the first ever images of Jupiter’s north pole, revealing some unexpectedly stormy weather. But there was some worrying news in October; Juno’s engines malfunctioned, leaving it unable to start collecting data, and Juno went into ‘safe mode’. Luckily, the craft is now back online, and NASA scientists hope it will start sending back data when it soars above Jupiter’s clouds in December. Juno will be de-orbited in February 2018, when it will burn up in Jupiter’s atmosphere to prevent biological contamination of the gas giant’s moons.

Experts told us how they felt about Juno’s arrival in orbit around Jupiter

It was a year of Great Barrier grief

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2016 was a grim year for Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef (GBR), as scientists reported the most extreme mass bleaching events ever recorded. In April, Australian researchers revealed that coral bleaching had reached 93 per cent of the reef, leaving a mix of very severe, moderate and mild damage. Then, in November, scientists reported that most of the corals at the northern end of the reef had died, an area that had previously been relatively untouched by bleaching. The central northerly region of the reef around Cooktown had lost two thirds of its corals, while the far north had lost a quarter. Losses in the central and southern regions were more modest. Unusually hot temperatures in 2015 and 2016 damaged the microscopic algae (zooxanthellae) that live inside corals, turning the reef white, a process captured on film by Australian experts. More recently, scientists have reported that some bleached corals are regaining their colour, but a full recovery could take 10-15 years, and will depend on clean and cooler waters around the reef. Government plans to secure the reef’s future were submitted to UNESCO in December, in an attempt to avoid the UN body declaring the GBR a World Heritage Site “in danger”, which could negatively impact a lucrative tourism industry. But the plan has been criticised because it does not include any measures relating to climate change, thought by many scientists to be the main reason for this year’s mass bleaching.

We asked experts to comment on the mass bleaching event

Ratifying the Paris Agreement marked 'the moment we decided to save our planet'

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After gruelling negotiations at last year’s COP21 meeting in Paris, the world’s pollies agreed to “endeavour to limit” global temperature rises to 1.5°C, and 2016 was the year that agreement was ratified and came into force. The biggest players on the global stage, also the world’s biggest polluters, America and China, ratified the agreement in September, with President Barack Obama hailing the "moment we finally decided to save our planet".  Australia signed the agreement in April and ratified it in November, joining 180 nations that have signed up for the deal. As well as the ambitious goal of capping warming at 1.5°C, wealthier nations have agreed to help poorer countries shoulder the costs and consequences of climate change. The new deal replaces the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which included only a handful of nations and which the US later pulled out of. However, speculation as to whether a Trump administration in the US will tear up the agreement remains, although the President-elect recently told the New York Times that he believes there is “some connectivity” between human activities and our planet’s changing climate.

We asked experts for their reactions when the agreement came into force and when it was ratified by Australia

The World Health Organization gave coffee an unclear cancer all-clear, just let it cool down a bit

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After confusing us all when it announced last year that bacon can cause cancer, without making the risks clear, the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC), the cancer-arm of the World Health Organization, set its sights on coffee and very hot drinks in June 2016, delivering some good news for those of us who rely on a cup or ten of morning Joe to function. Coffee had previously been classified by the IARC as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, but a review of the evidence led the agency to announce that coffee is ”not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans”. If that sounds as clear as the sludge at the bottom of a coffee cup, it essentially means you can enjoy your latte with peace of mind, because scientists are now more certain than they were that it isn’t giving you cancer. In the same report, the IARC looked at a much smaller body of evidence around drinking very hot drinks, and found that downing drinks at above 65°C “probably” can cause cancer, so let that coffee cool down before throwing it back.

We asked experts to clarify the IARC report

The periodic table welcomed four new chemical kids on the block

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You probably remember the periodic table - which arranges the chemical elements in order of their atomic number - from school chemistry lessons, and you may have thought we’d discovered all the elements long ago, but you’d be wrong. This year, that very exclusive club, the elements of the period table, welcomed four new members, Nihonium (atomic number 113), Moscovium (115), Tennessine (117) and Oganesson (118). But you won’t stumble across the new elements out and about, they’re highly unstable and exist only in scientists’ experiments. The new chemical kids on the block were synthesised between 2002 and 2010, but it wasn’t until November this year that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially named them and added them to the table. Three of the elements, Moscovium, Tennessine and Oganesson were cooked up by a team of US and Russian scientists, while Nihonium was discovered by a Japanese team, the first Japanese entry on the periodic table.

We established the world's largest marine reserve in the Antarctic

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After six years of wrangling and several false starts at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, 24 countries and the European Union finally agreed to create the world's largest marine park in the Antarctic Ocean in October, after Russia dropped its long-standing objections to the plan. The Commission agreed to establish the Ross Sea Marina Protected Area at a meeting in Hobart, a move many hope will help conserve the pristine Antarctic environment. The reserve will cover 1.6million square km, roughly a fifth the size of Australia, around the Ross Sea shelf and slope, the Balleny Islands and two underwater mountains, easily the largest marine reserve in the world. Commercial fishing will be banned from the entire area, although around a third of it will be designated as research zones, allowing scientists to catch fish and krill. The area will be protected under the current agreement for 35 years. The total tonnage of fish that can be taken from the Ross Sea will actually remain unchanged, but fishers have been pushed further out to sea, away from the ecologically significant coastal areas that are home to whales and penguins, among other animals.

The global scales tipped in favour of obesity

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We just keep on getting fatter, and 2016 was the year that international scientists, including several Australians, revealed that more of the world’s population is now obese than is underweight. A survey that covered 186 countries, representing 99 per cent of the world’s population, showed that there are now six times as many obese people as there were in 1975, around 641 million. Roughly one in ten men and one in seven women are now obese. The scientists say that’s the equivalent of the average weight of a human being increasing by 1.5 kg per decade, and that if current trends continue, around a fifth of the world’s population will be obese by 2025, with one in twenty men and one in ten women severely obese. In Australia, they estimate that two out of every five people will be obese by 2025. During the same period, the proportion of underweight people fell; now, just one in eleven men is underweight, and one in ten women.

We asked experts for their thoughts

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