Key science developments to look forward to in 2015

The year 2015 is likely to see some key science developments. The one that most people are eagerly looking forward to is the development of an effective and efficacious Ebola vaccine and/or drug.

In the early part of 2015, a few vaccine trials are set to begin and the results are expected by June. Several drugs are already being tested. The most promising one appears to be the trial that uses antibody–rich blood of people who have survived Ebola. According to Nature , “The blood treatments could be rolled out quickly and widely if proved effective.”

Human clinical trials have already begun in Liberia to test the effectiveness of convalescent plasma therapy (CPT). Similar trials are expected to begin soon in two other places — Guinea and Sierra Leone. These three African countries have faced the brunt of the virus.

“Convalescent plasma was found to effectively treat diphtheria and tetanus at the end of the nineteenth century, and was widely used in the first half of the twentieth century to treat diseases such as measles, mumps and pneumonia,” notes Nature . But with the arrival of antibiotics, antivirals and vaccine, convalescent plasma was all but forgotten.

According to the WHO, the number of suspected, probable and confirmed Ebola cases in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea has crossed 20,000. The death toll stands at over 7,800. As of December 27, 2014, Sierra Leone has been the hardest hit with over 9,400 cases, which is almost half of all cases in the three African countries. But Liberia has the highest death toll of 3,413.

Reaching Pluto

If Rosetta finally reached a comet in August 2014 after travelling for ten years and covering a distance of 6.4 billion km, in July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto.

The New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto will occur on July 14. By then the craft will have travelled 5 billion km after it was launched in January 2006.

But even before New Horizons reaches Pluto, the craft will begin observing the Pluto system in mid-January. And by mid-May, New Horizons will be able to provide better views of the Pluto system. These views will be far better than the ones that the Hubble Space telescope can provide.

“For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them,” Hal Weaver, New Horizons Project Scientist said in a release.

Meanwhile, in March 2015, NASA’s Dawn probe will arrive at the protoplanet Ceres. Ceres is the “most massive body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.” The interest in exploring Ceres is because water ice is believed to be present beneath the crust.

Ancient human’s genome

After the 2013 publication of the mitochondrial genome of the 400,000-year-old Sima de Los Huesos human, in 2015 palaeontologists are hopeful of sequencing the complete genome of the ancient human. The specimen was found in a deep cave in northern Spain.

If extracting the mitochondrial material was a “Herculean task” given the badly deteriorated condition of the bones, sequencing the complete genome will be far tougher.

But when completed, the results will prove to greatly useful. “The results could help to clarify the evolutionary relationship between humans, Neanderthals and another ancient group called Denisovans, and to identify episodes of inbreeding between distantly related hominins,” notes Nature.

Large Hadron Collider

Finally, the Large Hadron Collider will reboot in March; it was shutdown two years ago. Once rebooted, LHC will be able to smash particles at 13 trillion electronvolts — almost double the currently achieved one.

The extra power will allow scientists to find the phenomena that “fill the gaps” in the standard model of particle physics.

But if LHC with the extra power is unable to find evidence of many heavy particles that supersymmtery theory predicts, that would result in the theory losing “further flavour.”

The theory is already in “doubt.”

Published in The Hindu on January 1, 2015