Six times SA was at the cutting edge of science in 2019

31 December 2019 - 09:38
By Tanya Farber
The Bloodhound LSR prepares to break the land speed record in the Northern Cape.
Image: Bloodhound LSR The Bloodhound LSR prepares to break the land speed record in the Northern Cape.

From genetics and engineering to astronomy and geoscience, SA has been the setting for a string of major scientific advances this year.

1. Reclaiming history from Khoisan skeletons

Geneticists found themselves looking backwards as well as forwards in attempts to put right a century-old wrong.

The remains of 11 individuals in the University of Cape Town’s skeletal collection were found to have been unethically obtained in the 1920s. It turned out that nine of the individuals were Khoisan farmworkers whose remains were dug up on a farm near Sutherland in the Northern Cape. A major restitution process will lead to their reburial next year.

At the request of the individuals’ descendants, a multidisciplinary scientific study determined the estimated age, gender and medical condition of each individual and assessed isotopes from bones and teeth to shed light on the their habitat, living conditions and diets.

DNA experts were able to establish ancestral genetic relationships while archaeologists conducted a survey of the cemetery and the disturbed graves. Finally, the individuals’ faces were recreated.

2. Making medicine safer for Africans

This year also saw geneticists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) growing tiny livers from skin cells. The aim is to test which Western medicines may be toxic to Africans without having to do a clinical trial on humans.

The scientists conducted much of their work using a tiny pair of “molecular scissors” to edit genomes. Within two years, they hope to be able to match drugs with patients based on their genetic makeup.

3. Land speed record attempt

Moving from the minuscule to the massive, attempts to break the land speed record with a car powered by a jet and a rocket moved to ground zero on South African soil.

In October, the British Bloodhound LSR vehicle arrived at Hakskeen Pan in the Northern Cape for high-speed tests that broke the 1,000km/h mark. Hopes are now high that it will reach its 1,610km/h target in 2020.

4. Exploring the stars

Half an hour’s high-speed drive southeast, but still in the Northern Cape, the MeerKAT telescope near Carnarvon made the first observation sensitive enough to reveal distant galaxies like our own that have never been observed before.

Optical telescopes can see distant galaxies, but they cannot see new stars, which are largely hidden inside dusty clouds of gas. Radio telescopes can see through the dust, but until now have not been sensitive enough to detect the signals from distant Milky Way-like galaxies that are responsible for most of the star formation in the universe.

Less than a month earlier, astronomers using the MeerKAT discovered a new object after spotting an unusual flare. It turned out that it originated from a binary star system — two stars orbiting each other — in our own galaxy.

5. Dinosaur discovery

In the wonderful world of dinosaurs, Wits PhD student Kimberley Chapelle discovered a new dinosaur species after it had lain in the institution’s vault for more than 30 years.

She and her team recognised that the dinosaur was not only a new species of sauropodomorph but a new genus entirely. The specimen has now been named Ngwevu intloko - “grey skull” in Xhosa.

6. Solving the mystery of SA's plateaus

In the world of geoscience, a team of experts tested gas from natural springs in KwaZulu-Natal and discovered why SA has large plateaus at high altitudes.

They worked out that the country sits on a column of hot treacle-like material - called a hotspot - located deep inside the Earth, and that this hotspot (similar to those that cause volcanoes elsewhere) has pushed up large surfaces, which sit like “buoyant lids” on top.