Our most popular interviews and articles in 2017

Why do killer whales go through menopause? Avoiding mother-daughter conflict is key

Menopause is an exclusive trait, shared only among humans, killer whales, and short finned pilot whales. We spoke with an animal behaviorist who sifted through 43 years of demographic data on killer whales to investigate menopause. He found that killer whales go through menopause to avoid reproduction competition with their daughters, allowing them to instead share knowledge to help their family succeed. Read more


System of seven Earth-like planets could support life

Seven Earth-sized terrestrial planets were discovered this year orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star. They’re the most promising target yet in the search for life outside our solar system. 40 light years away, the planets are—like Earth—terrestrial rocky worlds that could support life under the right atmospheric conditions. Prior to this discovery, the only terrestrial planets known to be well-suited to life were those in our solar system. “Now we have seven more we can study in detail. And not in a few decades—we are doing this now,” said lead author Michaël Gillon. “This story is just beginning.” Read more


A full operating system and film stored on DNA were recovered with no errors

The world is churning out so much data that hard drives may not be able to keep up, leading researchers to look at DNA as a possible storage medium. DNA is ultra compact, and doesn’t degrade over time like cassettes and CDs. Earlier this year, researchers demonstrated DNA’s full potential and reliability for storing data. They wrote six files— including a full computer operating system, a 1895 French film, and an Amazon gift card—into 72,000 DNA strands, each 200 bases long. They then used sequencing technology to retrieve the data, and software to translate the genetic code back into binary. The files were recovered with no errors. Read more


This plastic-eating caterpillar can help us get rid of our trash


Used primarily for disposable packaging like shopping bags and soda bottles, polyethylene is one of the most common plastics. It’s also notoriously slow to break down after it’s made its way into a landfill. But the authors of an April study may have stumbled on a way to significantly speed up the process: a common caterpillar known as the wax worm. Read more


Mars had water for longer than previously thought

The discovery of light-toned bedrock with high concentrations of silica in Mars’ Gale crater reveals that groundwater persisted once the crater's lake dried up. The discovery was made by NASA’s Curiosity rover, which traveled more than 16 km over 1,700 Martian days from the bottom of Gale crater to Mount Sharp in the crater’s center. For researchers, it is now a question of whether this extended window of water on Mars enabled life to develop. Read more


Mothers who breastfeed may be less likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke later in life

Research published this summer suggests children aren’t the only ones who benefit from breastfeeding. Mothers may see long-term health benefits too. Researchers from China and the UK analyzed data from hundreds of thousands of women over eight years. They found that mothers who had breastfed their children were nine percent less likely to have heart disease and eight percent less likely to have experienced a stroke than those who didn’t. Read more


Scientists confirm the existence of another ocean garbage patch

In a ResearchGate project update, scientists confirmed the existence of another ocean garbage patch, this time in a remote area of the South Pacific. The high degree of plastic pollution was uncovered by captain Charles Moore and his team of volunteer researchers on a six-month voyage. Unlike the famous patch in the northern Pacific Ocean, which has long been one of the world’s most recognizable symbols of pollution, the new patch is in an area that had previously been largely unstudied. Read more


Having a bad job may be worse for your health than having no job at all

For the unemployed, finding a job can be a path to improved mental health, but only if it’s a good one. Researchers tracked 1,116 British adults who were unemployed in 2009-2010. Those who found good jobs enjoyed improved mental health outcomes, while those who found jobs that were stressful, poorly paid, or unstable saw no improvement. In fact, the physical indicators of chronic stress were even higher in people working in bad jobs than in those who remained unemployed. Read more


Evaporation could be next big thing in renewable energy


Analysis by Columbia University researchers found that converting evaporation from US lakes and reservoirs to energy could produce 325 gigawatts of power a year. That’s nearly 70 percent of what the US produces overall. In the conversion method analyzed for the study, generators rest over a body of water and use bacterial spores to harness energy from evaporating water. Read more


Marijuana users have more sex


This October, researchers at Stanford University linked regular marijuana use to more frequent sex. The study, which analyzes data from 50,000 reproductive-aged Americans, is the first in the United States to examine the relationship between sex and marijuana use at population scale. The results came as a surprise to the researchers. “I had assumed there would be no relationship, or even a negative one,” said the urologist behind the study. Read more


Xenophobia found to be strong predictor of Brexit vote, regardless of age, gender, or education


Last year, 52 percent of UK citizens voted in favor of Brexit, starting the country on a path to leave the EU. In a new study, researchers have found that xenophobia – the fear of other groups – was strongly linked to the yes vote regardless of age, gender, or education. The study also identified collective narcissism as a predictor of election results. Collective narcissists believe that the UK is entitled to special treatment because of its greatness, which is not being sufficiently recognized by other countries. Read more


CRISPR modification overcomes major hurdle to human treatments

In its five years of existence, CRISPR/Cas9 has revolutionized the field of gene editing, allowing researchers to edit DNA like a piece of text. While its potential is unquestionable, ethics and safety concerns have prevented CRISPR from being used to treat human diseases. Now, scientists have found a way around one of those hurdles, modifying the CRISPR system to treat several diseases in mice without cutting DNA, which means they avoid unwanted mutations. Read more