Eye on Science

7 min read

In the world of scientific explorations and discoveries, a month can be enough time for several new, possibly revolutionary ideas to be born. Biologists have created a new classification system for cell nuclei; researchers have found a sophisticated mathematical algorithm that uses municipal wastewater systems for tracing COVID-19 back to its human source; and astrophysicists have modelled a map for dark matter in the Universe. Here are the top discoveries and news in science!

A New Classification System for Cell Nuclei

If you did chemistry in secondary school, you would have heard of the Periodic Table, a classification system for elements based on their atomic, physical and chemical properties. On 27th May, a team of biologists from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas created a similar ‘periodic table’ for cell nuclei, which showcases how they can be transformed from one form to another.

Scientists from DNA Zoo, an international consortium of various institutions, were trying to classify chromosomes (condensed structures of DNA) based on how they fold up to fit inside the nuclei of different animal cells. After seeing a repetition of the same folding patterns, the team realized the variants could be traced back to two overall nuclear designs. This is astounding as it suggests that species can switch back and forth from one type to another, over thousands of years!

Another team of scientists from the laboratory of Benjamin Rowland at the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NCI) was working with a protein called condensing II, which plays a role in cell division. This team found that when the protein was mutated in human cells, the chromosomes would totally rearrange. Claire Hoencamp, co-first author of the study and a member of the NCI team, recounted the experience: “It was baffling!”. 

The two teams decided to collaborate and work on the chromosome study. The team from NCI helped decode the controlling mechanism behind the DNA Zoo team’s findings. The work constraints brought by the COVID-19 pandemic did not stop their progress, as they used artificial intelligence to simulate how cell nuclei could transmute, and even managed to recreate the process in a test tube. This is a groundbreaking step in genome engineering that allows us to visualise such changes in 3D form.

Tracing COVID-19 using Wastewater

In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, governments, health officials and scientists are racing against time to implement new techniques for detecting carriers of the virus. Math turns out to be a great force in achieving these goals. 

On 4th June, a new research paper published in PLOS One introduced a sophisticated algorithm which uses municipal wastewater systems, for determining key locations in the detection and tracing of COVID-19 back to its human source, which may be a newly infected person or a hotspot of infected people. Sewer systems carry most of the household toilet wastes in urban areas, and hence, they become places where the virus can be found in faecal material of even asymptomatic infected persons. This new research considers more intricate tree patterns on manholes and one-way pipes, as well as the need for a faster detection mechanism to avoid further spread of the virus. This system works pretty much like following someone’s footsteps to see where they came from!

“It’s exciting to work on something that is very much needed and might have the potential to help people soon,” said Prof. Oded Berman, who was a member of the research team. “It’s very different from what I’ve done before.”

A sensor sends out an alert any time COVID-19 traces are detected. Manual testing is then done at a few manholes further upstream, also chosen according to the algorithm, until the final source is located. 

These technologies are currently under development and will need field testing and rapid on-site COVID-19 testing to work efficiently. Other viruses as well as illegal drug or chemical use and manufacture can be detected from wastewater using this technology.

A Map for Dark Matter 

We use maps to visualise places or landmarks on a piece of paper. But what about the cosmos? Is there a map for a place which is unexplored and unseen? An international team of astrophysicists has done just that, by developing a new map of dark matter in the local universe. 

Dark matter is an elusive substance that makes up 80% of the universe. It is composed of particles that do not absorb, reflect, or emit light and are, hence, extremely difficult to detect. By mapping out the dark matter in our universe, it also provides the skeleton for what cosmologists call the “cosmic web”, the ‘canvas’ of the universe that dictates motion of galaxies and other cosmic material.

In this study, researchers used machine learning to build a model that uses information about motion of galaxies to predict the distribution of dark matter. An extensive set of galaxy simulations, called Illustris-TNG, was used to simulate galaxies comparable to the Milky Way.  The research team then applied their model to real-life data. The map successfully reproduced known prominent structures in the local universe and even identified several new structures that connect galaxies. 

This discovery has unveiled several new possibilities for exploration in cosmology. To give an interesting example, a neighbouring galaxy Andromeda is suggested to be slowly moving towards the Milky Way, but whether they may collide in many billions of years remains unclear. Studying the dark matter filaments connecting the two galaxies could help answer this question.

“Because dark matter dominates the dynamics of the universe, it basically determines our fate,” said Professor Donghui Jeong who worked on the study.” He further elaborated that we can know how the universe will look in the future or how it looked in bygone eras.

Those were the top three discoveries in Science this month! Every time I read about these brilliant scientific advancements, I remember how science has allowed mankind to grow and learn about the tiniest quark and the farthest star, and how science is everywhere- from the publishing of this article to a laugh between friends. Therefore, it is imperative that all of us be informed of the top science news day after day and month after month.

Citations : 
Penn State. “Dark matter map reveals hidden bridges between galaxies.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 May 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/05/210525101716.htm.>

University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management. “Early warning system for COVID-19 gets faster through wastewater detection and tracing.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 June 2021.

Interesting Engineering. “Biologists Develop ‘Periodic Table’ for Cell Nuclei.” Interestingengineering.com, 28 May 2021, interestingengineering.com/biologists-develop-periodic-table-for-cell-nuclei. 

Baylor College of Medicine. “Biologists construct a ‘periodic table’ for cell nuclei: Project to classify nuclei across the tree of life discovers how to transmute them from one type into another.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 May 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/05/210527145252.htm>.

Rice University News and Media Relations. “Biologists Construct a ‘Periodic Table’ for Cell Nuclei.” News.rice.edu, Rice University, News and Media Relations, Office of Public Affairs, 27 May 2021,

Neel V. Patel. “The Most Detailed Dark Matter Map of Our Universe Is Weirdly Smooth.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 28 May 2021,

Written by Anshika Singh
Illustrations by Lim Daphne


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