2020 in Science: A SpaceX Bonanza, Lab-Grown Brains, and More

If you’re an astronaut, you’re used to being treated both like royalty and like a lab animal—imperial guinea pigs, perhaps. Next year, these august examinees will enroll in a new kind of experiment as they strap themselves into the first private, human-ready spacecraft to lift off of US soil.

That’s not the only historic event to expect in 2020. Back on land, actual lab rats may find the year brings them something of a reprieve. Building on mountains of work, scientists have crafted beating mini-hearts and other realistic organoids that may now replace some rodents. Throw in advances in the hunt for dark matter (if you’re in xenon sales, this is your lucky year), an out-of-this-world plan for satellites, and the Crispr’ing of just about everything, and the year ahead is shaping up to be delightfully sci-fi.

Here Come the Brain Balls

Over the past decade and a half, scientists have gotten pretty good at turning stem cells into itsy-bitsy versions of nearly every one of your internal organs. At last, these lab-grown brain balls, mini-hearts, and gut globules (to name a few) are living longer, getting more complex, and starting to fulfill their promise as a replacement for animal testing. (They’ve even gone to space!)

In May, scientists in the Netherlands built proto-proto-kidneys from a cystic fibrosis patient’s urine and then tested different drugs on them. Earlier this month, researchers in California reported that their 10-month-old mini-brains have started sparking out brain waves similar to those of a developing fetus. (Brain organoid ethics, here we come!) A number of startups are also growing people’s tumors and screening them against dozens of cancer drugs to find one that works.

Those aren’t the only signs of organoids’ rise. In 2019, AstraZeneca teamed up with a company that makes tiny, beating “hearts in a jar” to improve its odds of finding a treatment for a common kind of cardiac failure. GlaxoSmithKline partnered with another heart-on-a-chip company to predict how drugs for other diseases might negatively affect the cardiovascular system. As organoids mature and Big Pharma buys in, they might just make the whole business of drug-making safer, cheaper, and less cruel. —Megan Molteni

The Universe, Revealed

Physicists have struggled with the question for centuries: What is the universe made of? Currently, they’re grappling with the mysteries of dark matter—an invisible material never yet observed, but whose gravitational influence suggests it comprises 85 percent of the universe’s mass—and dark energy, a substance permeating space that is stretching the universe apart at increasingly faster rates.

Next year, scientists are throwing newer and bigger machines at these questions. Dark energy researchers are installing a new telescope called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument at Kitt Peak Observatory, in Arizona. In April, it will begin to map the motion of galaxies across a third of the sky. Physicists are hoping that these maps, taken over five years, will lead to better measurements of the universe’s expansion, which they can use to infer properties of dark energy.

Meanwhile, dark matter hunters have enhanced an old detector design: an underground vat of liquid xenon, shielded from the noise on Earth’s surface, that’s designed to produce light should a dark matter particle make contact. The first prototypes were built over a decade ago and contained less than 50 pounds of xenon. To put that in perspective, the XENON1T detector in Italy is currently undergoing an upgrade to hold 8 tons of the stuff. What’s more, next summer physicists will turn on an even bigger machine, the 10-ton LUX-ZEPLIN, located in an old South Dakota gold mine. More xenon increases the likelihood of catching a dark matter particle—and they’ve got their fingers crossed. —Sophia Chen

The Solar Boom Sputters

It wasn’t that long ago that solar power in the United States was virtually nonexistent. In 2007, solar accounted for just 1/10 of 1 percent of America’s electricity, and today it’s up to nearly 2 percent. America’s solar boom grew out of two trends. The first was the plunging cost and efficiency gains of photovoltaic cells. The other was a tax credit that allowed businesses and individuals to deduct 30 percent of the cost of installing new solar panels from their taxes. Although photovoltaics continue to gain efficiency, the fate of the tax credit is uncertain. The 30 percent tax deduction drops to 26 percent in 2020 and 22 percent in 2021. After that, individuals won’t receive any tax credits for installing solar on their homes, and business owners will receive a paltry 10 percent. In July, a trio of Congressmen introduced a bill that would extend the credit at 30 percent for another five years, but so far there’s no indication it will get passed. The solar industry will survive either way, but it likely won’t see the kind of growth it has experienced over the past 10 years. The US is already struggling to meet its climate goals, and a step down in credits for solar energy isn’t going to help. —Daniel Oberhaus

Crispr, Crispr Everywhere

Crispr, the revolutionary gene-editing tool, is less than a decade old. With astonishing speed, it has begun to appear in clinical tests, where it is now proving its powers. The first published report of Crispr in a person showed it could safely treat (though not yet cure) HIV. A highly anticipated clinical trial in the US has dosed its first patients with Crispr-edited cells to treat sickle cell disease. Next year, the list will grow longer. Doctors are recruiting patients for at least a dozen clinical trials, with aims to cure other blood disorders, inherited blindness, and a variety of cancers. They are also eyeing trials for muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and other genetic diseases for which Crispr has already shown promise in the lab.

These clinical forays all involve the original version of Crispr—a programmable enzyme that cuts DNA. There are now Crispr versions 2.0 and 3.0, which are progressing rapidly. In 2017, Harvard chemist David Liu debuted base editors—which swap out a single DNA letter for another. By the summer of 2019, more than 100 experiments with base editing had been published. A few months later Liu introduced another Crispr operating system upgrade—prime editing—which acts like a word processor, rewriting whole chunks of a DNA sequence.

Both technologies are now being developed by companies Liu founded. If the next year of data-gathering goes well, at least one of them, Beam Therapeutics, could make its first moves toward human trials in 2021. —Megan Molteni

SpaceX Goes Big on Starlink

In May, SpaceX launched its first batch of 60 Starlink satellites, which the company hopes to use to bathe the Earth in broadband internet. Since then the company has tossed 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, and before the end of the decade it will add 60 more. This already makes Starlink the largest satellite constellation in history by a large margin, but the company is just getting started. In early January 2020, SpaceX will begin an even more aggressive launch schedule for its internet satellites. A few months ago, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the company could do as many as 24 Starlink launches next year.

This amounts to some 1,440 new satellites in orbit, which is just shy of the total number of operating satellites around Earth today. To complete its constellation, SpaceX will need roughly 12,000 satellites, but it is already drawing heat from astronomers who claim the Starlink satellites are ruining the night sky for science. Elon Musk needs a large revenue stream from satellite internet to fund his Mars ambitions, so the launches are likely to continue. But it’s still unclear whether there’s enough demand to justify all that orbital internet. —Daniel Oberhaus

People Hitch Private Rides to the ISS

On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center to deliver four astronauts to the International Space Station for the last time. Since then, there hasn’t been a single crewed launch on US soil. Nine years later, that’s about to change. Both Boeing and SpaceX are expected to soon send astronauts to the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program—it’s just a matter of who will get there first. Both of them have contended with recent setbacks: In 2019 SpaceX’s crew capsule exploded during a test, and the two companies have struggled to make a parachute for their capsules that works every time. In January, SpaceX will conduct its in-flight abort test, a dramatic display that will jettison the Dragon crew capsule from a Falcon 9 rocket in mid-air—the final major hurdle for the company. NASA hasn’t announced the launch dates for the first crewed mission to the ISS just yet, so stay tuned for announcements about this major milestone in human spaceflight. —Daniel Oberhaus

AI Meets Personalized Medicine

The news this fall that Google and Ascension, the nation’s second-largest health system, had quietly partnered to develop cloud-based personalized medicine tools was shocking because of its scale. The intimate data of 50 million people had been handed over to a company whose data-driven intentions are widely mistrusted. But the deal was totally legal; Google is a business partner like any other in the health care system—assuming everyone sticks to the terms of the contract.

If that made you nervous, here’s some bad news: 2020 will be the year your health data ends up in the cloud. And that means your medical history will be entwined with Amazon, Microsoft, or Google, the three dominant cloud providers. Why are they so keen on that? There’s an ongoing battle for cloud dominance, of course, and hospitals are big customers. But unlike past fights about who stores your health records, Big Tech also wants to put that data to work.

In addition to cloud services, Google’s deal involved building predictive tools—algorithms that can predict the course of medical conditions and suggest individualized care. That’s a tantalizing premise. Although the first AI diagnostic tools went to market this year, in general tech companies haven’t had the data they need to make good predictions. Take Google’s recent research on predicting acute kidney injury. The study involved a huge data set in the Veterans Affairs system but, as the researchers acknowledged, the data was only 6 percent female. The machine-learning models it produced were no good in other contexts. Even huge data sets like Ascension’s might not be enough to develop tools that can avoid wasteful false positives and missed clues.

In 2020, we’ll see how Big Tech acts once it becomes entrenched in medicine. In the US health care system, as in machine-learning models, scale is everything. —Gregory Barber

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