Science Magazine announced its top pick for "breakthrough of the year" this week — and it's a great choice! CRISPR, the gene-editing technique, definitely dominated the news in 2015. For the uninitiated, scientists use CRISPR to target and alter DNA segments with a high level of accuracy. It’s very cool — and very controversial. So this year, the biggest sciencestory was accompanied by an intense debate over the ethics of a method that could, hypothetically, be used to permanently alter the human gene pool.
In August, scientists made a surprising announcement: a strain of yeast had been engineered in a lab and was now able to transform sugar into a pain-killing drug — called hydrocodone — for the first time. In addition, a second strain could produce thebaine, an opiate precursor that pharmaceutical companies use to make oxycodone. The finding was touted as a potential avenue for making new pain-relieving drugs. But others suggested that the technique might one day be used to "home-brew" heroin.
In September, scientists announced the discovery of 15 partial skeletons belonging to what they think was a previously unknown species of ancient human. The bones were collected from Rising Star Cave in South Africa and the species was dubbed Homo naledi. The bones of H. naledidisplay a mixture of primitive and modern traits, with a small skull that's about the size of a gorilla's, and humanlike extremities.