In 2015, scientists captured the first close-ups of Pluto and uncovered a new human ancestor in a mysterious cave. They made findings. They announced findings. They sought funding. In short, they scienced the shit out of it.
But, in many ways, 2015 felt more like a teaser than a blockbuster year. Many of the discoveries and new tools claiming headlines remained largely conjectural. In 2015, genetic engineering entered its Golden Age, psychedelic drug testing got real, and organ transplantation caught up with sci-fi. Still, we won’t really know what a lot of that will mean for humanity and the Earth over the long haul until next year. In a sense, 2016 will be about weaponizing new knowledge.
Here are the stories we’ll be watching.
The CRISPR Takeover
Earlier this month, Science Magazine named CRISPR, the gene-editing tool that’s reshaping our definitions of humanhood, its Breakthrough of the Year. Genomes of organisms from tiny pigs to human embryos went under its microscopic knife, producing gene-spliced hybrids we never thought we’d see. There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’ll ever be ethical to use it to enhance humans — some scientists have called for an all-out ban — but the line between using it to eradicate disease and improve well-being is becoming increasingly thin.
Juno Hits Jupiter
NASA’s Juno spacecraft is scheduled to hit Jupiter on Independence Day 2016, marking the end of its five-year trek to the Gas Giant. Scientists hope to use the incoming data on Jupiter’s unexpectedly high level of water vapor in its atmosphere to settle the debate about how exactly the planet formed. While probes have explored the planet before, it’ll be the first time humans will get a close look at its interior and the mysterious regions around its poles. Maybe they’ll finally figure out why the Great Red Spot appears to be shrinking.
The Rise of the Penis Swap
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University announced that America’s first-ever penis transplants would begin in 2016. While the first 60 patients will all be U.S. soldiers injured in combat, streamlining the procedure will inevitably present new options for men seeking to enhance their bodies and those seeing gender reassignment surgery — as well as stoke the already-fraught debate about who should pay for it.
LightSail Leaves Port
Bill Nye’s solar sailboat, the project championed by his space organization the Planetary Society, is expected to launch in the coming year. The LightSail operates on the Carl Sagan-inspired principle that solar radiation could act like wind in mirrored sails, allowing the attached spacecraft to surf through space.
The new year will offer hope for American women suffering from infertility. In November, the Cleveland Clinic announced it would perform its first ten uterine transplants on infertile women, using wombs from deceased women to provide patients with a second chance at pregnancy. It’s estimated that up to 50,000 women in the U.S. alone could be candidates for the new procedure.