The goal of the Breakthrough Prize awards, founded by luminaries within the tech world (including Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Sergey Brin) three years ago, is to draw more attention to important work being done in the basic sciences. Judging by the celebrities who showed up for the star-studded ceremony at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley — Seth MacFarlane, Russell Crowe, Pharrell Williams and Hilary Swank – scientists doing pioneering research are starting to attract additional high-profile attention. These are three of the breakthrough ideas that we’ll be hearing more about in 2016:
1. Neutrinos are the key to understanding the known universe
The 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics went to a core group of seven research leaders and 1,370 other researchers studying neutrino oscillations at five different laboratories around the world. Two of these researchers – Arthur B. McDonald of Queen’s University in Canada and Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo in Japan — already won the Nobel Prize in Physics in October of this year for their discovery that neutrinos can oscillate between three different “flavors.” Given the ability of neutrinos to oscillate, the researchers conjecture that they must have a very tiny mass, tens of millions of times smaller than that of protons.
That’s actually a big deal, since it contradicts the Standard Model of particle physics, which suggests that neutrinos have zero mass. While neutrinos are some of the most abundant particles in the universe, they are also among the most mysterious. They travel at nearly the speed of light, yet don’t interact with other matter in observable ways. Researchers can only study them by trapping them in underground caves in huge vats of water. Yet scientists now believe that these shape-shifting neutrinos are the key to understanding the known universe — everything from dark matter to supernovas.
2. Understanding the human genome can lead to new treatments for diseases
The Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences went to researchers who are tracking down the way that specific genes lead to diseases. John Hardy, of the University College London, won for discovering mutations in the Amyloid Precursor Protein gene (APP) that causes early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Helen Hobbs, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, won for the discovery of human genetic variants that alter the levels and distribution of cholesterol and other lipids, inspiring new approaches to the prevention of cardiovascular and liver disease.
Being able to track down the genetic basis for diseases is now one of the hottest ideas in medicine. Thanks to new gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR, advanced knowledge of how specific genes work, and a broader knowledge of the human genome, it’s possible to imagine a future in which certain genes can be edited to prevent future disease. If a certain gene is responsible for the human body creating too much cholesterol, for example, it might be possible to edit it, so as to prevent the onset of specific diseases.
3. Exploring ancient DNA can help to explain the origins of humans
The traditional way to learn about extinct species is by digging up old bones or, in the case of early humans, examining stone tools they might have left behind. But what if you could learn about them by studying their DNA? Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology won a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for pioneering the sequencing of ancient DNA and ancient genomes, with a focus on understanding the origins of modern humans, their relationships to extinct relatives such as Neanderthals, and the evolution of human populations and traits.
Pääbo has been studying the DNA of ancient Neanderthals from 40,000 years ago and is working on mapping the entire Neanderthal genome. Once you compare the ancient Neanderthal genome with the modern human genome, it may be possible to detect the specific genetic changes that resulted in the first modern humans. There are other scenarios whereby techniques used to study ancient DNA might have interesting implications. What if, for example, researchers start exploring the ancient DNA of the wooly mammoth or some other extinct species? It might be possible to bring an extinct species back to life once you are able to map its entire genome.
It’s clear that technology is changing our view of the world both at a very grand scale – the size of the universe – and at an infinitesimally small scale – the size of genes and neutrinos. The more we seem to know, though, the more mysterious life – and our place in the universe — appears to be.
And that’s why these Breakthrough Prizes are so important. “Breakthrough Prize laureates are making fundamental discoveries about the universe, life and the mind,” Breakthrough Prize co-founder Yuri Milner said. “These fields of investigation are advancing at an exponential pace, yet the biggest questions remain to be answered.”