2018: The Year at Caltech Was Filled With Amazing Accomplishments, Incredible Discoveries

Published : Wednesday, December 19, 2018 | 6:12 AM

During the last 12 months, Caltech researchers have won a Nobel Prize, explained planetary dust clump formation, developed techniques to prevent diabetes-related blindness, explored ways to mitigate the effects of natural disasters, and taught drones to herd birds.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. In case you missed any of the year’s news, here are some of the most notable moments.

Credit: Caltech

Caltech Scientist Wins Nobel Prize

Frances Arnold, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on directed evolution. She is Caltech’s first female Nobel laureate. Directed evolution, pioneered by Arnold in the early 1990s, is a bioengineering method for creating new and better enzymes in the laboratory using the principles of evolution. Today, the method is used in hundreds of laboratories and companies that make everything from laundry detergents to biofuels to medicines. Enzymes created with the technique have replaced toxic chemicals in many industrial processes.


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Unlocking the Secrets of the Brain

In work that has potential applications for treating mental health disorders in humans, researchers discovered that social isolation causes the build-up of a particular chemical in the brain and that blocking this chemical eliminates those negative effects. In other work, biologists identified the neural basis of aggressive behaviors in fruit flies, which could lead to greater understanding of threatening behaviors in humans. Elsewhere, Caltech researchers demonstrated that testosterone has a measurable effect on a man’s preference for brands considered status symbols. And in a series of studies, Caltech researchers showed that people can make better-than-chance judgments about whether an unknown politician has been convicted of corruption based purely on the width of the politician’s face.


Credit: USGS

Using Seismometers for Debris Flow Early Warning

Caltech seismologists suggest seismometers in the field could be used to provide an early warning of an incoming debris flow in mudslide-prone areas. After rain soaked the fire-ravaged hillsides of Santa Barbara County in January 2018, triggering deadly debris flows, seismologists at Caltech noticed that the rumble and roar of the mudslide was detected by a seismometer about 1.5 kilometers away from the worst of the damage. The seismogram generated by the event revealed information about the debris flow’s speed, width, and the size of boulders it carried, and could potentially have given residents five to 10 minutes of warning.



Credit: Maayan Harel for Caltech

New Technique for Switching Brain Circuits On and Off Without Surgery

Caltech researchers have developed a new noninvasive technique for precisely controlling brain circuits that could one day help treat neurological conditions without the need for surgery. The method—which involves a trio of therapies: ultrasound waves, gene therapy, and synthetic drugs—can be used to specifically alter memory formation in mice. While the idea of fine-tuning neural circuits is not new, the novel aspect of this method is the use of sound waves, with which the blood-brain barrier is temporarily opened to allow for the use of targeted gene therapy.


Credit: Caltech

Drones Taught to Herd Birds Away From Airports

Caltech engineers developed an algorithm that enables a single drone to herd an entire flock of birds away from an airspace. The project was inspired by the 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” near-disaster, when an airplane struck a flock of geese above Manhattan’s Hudson River shortly after takeoff. After studying and generating a mathematical description of flocking behaviors, the researchers reverse engineered it to see how flocks would respond to approaching external threats. They then used that information to create an algorithm that produces ideal flight paths for incoming drones to move a flock away from a protected airspace without dispersing it.


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight Touches Down on Mars

On November 26, the InSight lander touched down successfully on the surface of Mars near the planet’s equator. The mission, which was launched on its 300-million-mile trip from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May, will study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the moon, formed. The landing signal was relayed to JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA, via NASA’s two small experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, which launched on the same rocket as InSight and followed the lander to Mars.


Credit: Courtesy of the Mazmanian laboratory

How Bacteria Establish Robust Gut Colonization

Caltech microbiologists have illustrated how a particular species of beneficial bacteria called Bacterioides fragilis actually harnesses the body’s immune response so that it can settle down comfortably in the gut. The study shows that there is active immune recognition of the bacteria by antibodies, but this helps rather than hinders the microbes. In future work, the researchers plan to study how the gut’s antibody response arises in the first place and why it helps the “good bacteria.” Ultimately, this work could be used to improve colonization by other beneficial bacteria, as through the use of probiotics.


Credit: Caltech

Glowing Contact Lens for Diabetics

A glowing contact lens developed by Caltech engineers could help prevent blindness in millions of people with diabetes. Worn during sleep, the lens interrupts the process that causes damage to the blood vessels of the retina (retinopathy) and eventual blindness in diabetics by providing the eye’s rod cells with a faint amount of light, produced by tiny vials inside the lenses filled with a radioactive form of hydrogen gas, while the wearer sleeps. Rod cells use more oxygen at night than during the day, and it is thought that this higher demand causes retinal damage in diabetics, so the contacts should stave off further vision loss. Existing treatments, though effective, are painful and invasive, involving lasers and injections into the eyeball.


Credit: Caltech

Mapping the Neural Circuit Governing Thirst

Caltech scientists have mapped the circuit of neurons within the mouse brain that regulates thirst by stimulating and suppressing the drive to drink water. This circuit offers insight into thirst regulation in the mammalian brain. The researchers found that one area in particular, the median preoptic nucleus (MnPO), is the center for thirst regulation. The MnPO integrates thirst signals from two other regions in the brain and transmits them to downstream brain areas to induce drinking. The team also found another neural circuit that is involved in acute satiety of thirst. Though the results are in mice brains, similar regions exist in the human brain.


Credit: Hopkins Group/Caltech

How the Seeds of Planets Take Shape

In theoretical research that could explain everything from planet formation to outflows from stars, Caltech researchers have explained how the act of dust moving through gas leads to clumps of dust. In this model, the formation of planetary dust clumps begins with tiny dust grains moving through the gas orbiting in a protoplanetary disk. Gas curls around individual dust grains like river water around a boulder, and these gas flows might interact. If there are many dust grains in relatively close proximity to one another, the net effect of the many resulting gas flows would be to channel the dust together into clumps.

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