Seventeen research and innovation milestones in 2017

Scientific milestones
Innovative advances in science and medicine this year include (clockwise from top left): Findings on early life experiences from zebra finches, detection of gravitational waves from colliding neutron stars, a reusable oil-soaking sponge, opening the Chicago Quantum Exchange, UChicago Medicine offering pioneering CAR T-cell therapy for cancer and findings on cephalopods editing genetic code.
Rhianna Wisniewski
Assistant Director of Communications Office of the Executive Vice President for Research, Innovation and National Laboratories

This past year brought us the invention of an oil-soaking sponge, the detection of gravitational waves from two colliding neutron stars, innovative methods for making thinner semiconductors, the launch of several research-based startups, insight into how the developing brain forms memories, and a look back at the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Here is a look back at 17 highlights in research and innovation at the University and its national and affiliated laboratories in 2017:

‘Smart’ cephalopods adapt by editing genetic code, but sacrifice ability to evolve
Researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory showed that the “smart” cephalopods (squid, octopus and cuttlefish) edit their own RNA at extraordinarily high levels, allowing them to diversify the proteins that the cells can produce. The animals’ prolific RNA editing, they found, suppresses the mutation rate in their DNA, suggesting a novel evolutionary pathway to neural sophistication. Read more

Argonne invents reusable, oil-soaking sponge
Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory invented a new foam, called Oleo Sponge, that not only easily absorbs oil from water, but can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column—not just the surface. They found a way to grow an extremely thin layer of metal oxide on common polyurethane foam—a process that creates glue for attaching oil-loving molecules. The reusable material could revolutionize oil spill cleanup, including diesel and oil buildup in ports and harbors. Read more

Created an intellectual hub to explore the potential of quantum information
In June, UChicago and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab launched the Chicago Quantum Exchange, a new hub for advancing the science and engineering of quantum information. The Chicago Quantum Exchange, within the University’s Institute for Molecular Engineering, will facilitate the exploration of quantum information and the development of new applications with the potential to dramatically improve technology for communication, computing and sensing. Read more

Began construction on international megascience experiment to understand neutrinos
A groundbreaking ceremony held on July 21 at Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, S.D., marked the start of construction of an international experiment hosted by Fermilab. The Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility will house the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, which will be built and operated by more than 1,000 scientists and engineers from 31 countries. LBNF/DUNE will be the largest experiment ever built in the United States to study neutrino properties. Read more

Gravitational waves detected from colliding neutron stars
In October the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory announced that gravitational waves had been detected from two colliding neutron stars for the first time. The newly married neutron stars gave off a bright flash of light visible for days afterward. A team of scientists using the Dark Energy Camera, which was built and tested at Fermilab, was among the first to observe the fiery aftermath of the burst of gravitational waves, recording images of the first confirmed explosion from two colliding neutron stars ever seen by astronomers. Physicists at UChicago and Fermilab involved in the research using the discovery to calculate the expansion rate of the universe. Read more

NASA names solar mission after UChicago physicist Prof. Eugene Parker
NASA on May 31 named the first mission to fly a spacecraft directly into the sun’s atmosphere in honor of Prof. Eugene Parker, a pioneering physicist at the University of Chicago. The Parker Solar Probe will launch next summer on a mission to fly within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface to study the star with unprecedented precision. Read more

Scientists make atoms-thick Post-It notes for solar cells and circuits
An innovative method developed by scientists at UChicago and Cornell University can make stacks of semiconductors just a few atoms thick. The technique offers scientists and engineers a simple, cost-effective method to make thin, uniform layers of these materials, which could expand capabilities for devices from solar cells to cell phones. Read more

Innovation complex to expand Polsky Center, support for business creation
In June, the University of Chicago entered into an agreement that will develop the second phase of the Harper Court development in Hyde Park, expanding the work of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The new development will serve as a mixed-use complex, combining laboratory and office space to support collaborative research, innovation, startups and opportunities for local entrepreneurs. Read more

UChicago invests in surgical startup venture that can optimize the OR
ExplORer Surgical, a startup based on technology developed at the University of Chicago Medical Center and grown through multiple programs at the Polsky Center, provides an interactive surgical playbook that promotes optimal teamwork in the operating room. The company received an investment of $500,000 from the University as part of their $3 million series A financing. Read more

Seemingly innocuous virus can trigger celiac disease
A study by scientists at UChicago and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, shows that infection with reovirus, a common but otherwise harmless virus, can trigger the immune system response to gluten that leads to celiac disease. The study further implicates viruses in the development of autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease and type 1 diabetes, and raises the possibility that vaccines could one day be used to prevent these diseases. Read more

UChicago Medicine first site in Illinois offering pioneering CAR T-cell therapy for cancer
The University of Chicago Hospitals became the first site in Illinois to offer a breakthrough cancer treatment, known as CAR T-cell therapy, to treat adult patients with relapsed or refractory diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The treatment, recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is being offered by the University of Chicago Medicine, the first site in Chicago and Illinois to be certified by both Kite Pharma Inc. and Novartis. Read more

$100 million gift creates Duchossois Family Institute
A Chicago-area family in May gave $100 million to establish The Duchossois Family Institute at the University of Chicago Medicine, which seeks to accelerate research and interventions based on how the human immune system, microbiome and genetics interact to maintain health. The gift supports development of a “new science of wellness” aimed at preserving health and complementing medicine’s traditional focus on disease treatment. Read more

Bird songs provide insight into how developing brain forms memories
A study of zebra finch song birds by UChicago researchers in the social sciences demonstrated that a key protein complex in the brain is linked to young animals’ ability to learn behavior from adults. The findings help explain how early-life experiences affect brain function and behavior, with potential consequences for the study of autism. Read more

Cloud database expands services to accelerate secure cancer research
With a $4.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute the University of Chicago’s Globus—a data service initiative run by the Computation Institute—and leading cancer researchers at the University of Chicago Medicine will build new protected cancer research networks that enable collaborations while keeping sensitive health data secure and private. Read more

Commemorating 75th anniversary of first nuclear reaction
The University commemorated the 75th anniversary of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction with more than two months of public lectures and artworks, College classes and small-group discussions, that examined the magnitude of the historic experiment. It culminated on Dec. 1-2 with talks, panels and artistic performances, including a pyrotechnic art piece over the site on campus of the reaction. Read more

Yearlong survey tracks the microbiome of a newly opened hospital
A 12-month study by UChicago scientists mapping bacterial diversity within a hospital—with a focus on the flow of microbes between patients, staff and surfaces—should help hospitals worldwide better understand how to encourage beneficial microbial interactions and decrease potentially harmful contact. Read more

Carbon feedback from forest soils will accelerate global warming
The results of a 26-year experiment by scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory has shown that in a warming world, a self-reinforcing and potentially uncontrollable carbon feedback will occur between forest soils and the climate system, adding to the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels and accelerating global warming. Read more