Ten cool research stories you might have missed this year

There’s been a lot going on in 2020, so nobody can be blamed for missing a few things. But amid a tumultuous year in which many pivoted to COVID-19 research , University of Chicago scholars and scientists have also been hard at work continuing to understand the planet and the universe we live in, to improve our lives, and to build a future that’s clean, safe and sustainable.

Here are a few interesting research findings from the University of Chicago in 2020:

Takeout noodles inspire UChicago scientists to invent remarkable synthetic tissue

While eating takeout one day, University of Chicago scientists Bozhi Tian and Yin Fang started thinking about the noodles-specifically, their elasticity. When they ordered pounds of noodles to experiment with, the restaurant thought they were trying to steal the recipe to open a rival restaurant. But what they were preparing was a recipe for synthetic tissue-that could much more closely mimic biological skin and tissue than existing technology.

Breakthrough mouse model of celiac disease could lead to new treatments

UChicago researchers have developed the first truly accurate mouse model of celiac disease-a scientific breakthrough more than 20 years in the making. That is, they managed to create a mouse with the same genetic and immune system characteristics as humans who develop celiac after eating gluten. The research provides a vital tool for developing and testing new treatments for the disease.

Feeding 10 billion people on Earth is possible-and sustainable, scientists say

Supplying a sufficient and healthy diet for 10 billion people while keeping our biosphere largely intact will require no less than a technological and sociocultural U-turn. It includes adopting radically different ways of farming, reduction of food waste and dietary changes. But it can be done, say researchers from the University of Chicago and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

What birdsong tells us about brain cells and learning

Zebra finches have a library of complex, personalized songs, so scientists tapped into the network of neurons to eavesdrop on how they learned these songs. The results help us understand the neural process of learning-and might even be helpful with stuttering.

Mysterious interstellar visitor was probably a ’dark hydrogen iceberg,’ not aliens

The strange object named ’Oumuamua, which means "messenger from afar arriving first" in Hawaiian, baffled astronomers in 2017 and led some to claim it could be a spacecraft sent by intelligent life. A new theory proposed by University of Chicago and Yale astronomers explains the phenomenon without aliens-but with interesting scientific implications.

A new math intervention helps narrow achievement gap among preschoolers

A team of researchers that included statisticians, psychologists and curriculum experts found a potential solution: By assessing a variety of specific skills one-on-one every 10 weeks, teachers can bring students up to speed more effectively-helping to reduce the achievement gap.

What plants were smoked in pre-colonial North America? Ancient pipes hold clues

North American indigenous communities smoked around 100 different plant species, but it had been difficult to pin down which species were smoked in any given pipe found by archaeologists. Using a new method, scientists were able to identify precisely which plants went into a 1,300-year-old pipe found in Washington state.

Scientists ’knock out’ squid gene for the first time

The gene editing tool CRISPR helped scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory "knock out" a gene in squid-a major research breakthrough. One cephalopod biologist was quoted as saying, "It’s incredibly impressive that they’ve gotten it to work and this is a huge advancement for cephalopod researchers all over the world... We should all be popping bottles of champagne."

Inspired by chameleons, scientists use liquid crystals to create color-changing materials

Scientists at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering stole a trick from chameleons to develop a way to stretch and strain liquid crystals to generate different colors. Their color-changing sensing system could be used for smart coatings, sensors and even wearable electronics.

Oriental Institute archaeologists help discover lost kingdom in ancient Turkey

A farmer in Turkey stopped by a dig and told the archaeologists about a strange rock he’d seen last winter while dredging a nearby canal.

"My colleague Michele Massa and I rushed straight there, and we could see it still sticking out of the water, so we jumped right down into the canal-up to our waists wading around," said Asst. Prof. James Osborne of the OI, one of the foremost centers of research on the ancient world. "Right away it was clear it was ancient, and we recognized the script it was written in: Luwian, the language used in the Bronze and Iron ages in the area."