Peter Arkle

Hundreds of ROADS IN INDIA intended to connect poor villages were paid for but never built. A study by politics professor Jacob Shapiro and others determined why: political corruption. Examining almost 90,000 road contracts, they found that contracts were more likely to be awarded to a contractor with the same last name of a politician who had just won an election; those contracts were subsequently less likely to result in roads. Their study, with suggestions for reforms, appears this month in the Journal of Development Economics.

For years people have taken water for granted, despite increasing droughts and scarcity, says a team of researchers including EEB professor Andrew Dobson. The researchers argue that the first step in meeting the United Nations’ goals for water conservation is reconciling disparate VALUATIONS OF WATER — economically, socially, and environmentally — to arrive at a common method of pricing it. Only then, they say in a November Science article, can we better manage worldwide water supplies.

In August, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory at Caltech detected gravitational waves from a major astronomical event: NEUTRON STARS colliding. The burst of gamma rays produced by the merger confirmed several predictions by Princeton professors Bohdan Paczynski, who died in 2007, and Jeremy Goodman. Goodman joined almost 4,000 co-authors for a paper on the phenomenon, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters in October. Among the discoveries was that gold, platinum, europium, and other heavy metals were produced by the collision.

A climate model created by research scholar Hiro Murakami and geosciences professor Gabriel Vecchi has attributed the emergence of devastating CYCLONES IN THE ARABIAN SEA to warming temperatures caused by climate change. The model, created in 2014 with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicted an increase in extreme cyclones in the region in 2015, the first time a climate-change model has accurately predicted a region and season for storm activity. Their findings, published in Nature Climate Change in December, could help forecast emerging storms. 

Enzymes are the utility players of all living organisms — catalyzing diverse biological reactions needed to sustain life. They have been fine-tuned by billions of years of evolution, but chemistry professor Michael Hecht and his students are the first to replicate them in the lab, synthesizing proteins to create a SYNTHETIC ENZYME able to perform life-sustaining functions for bacteria. The results, published in January in Nature Chemical Biology, create new avenues for synthetic biology, an emerging field that seeks to fabricate biological systems not found in nature.

The world’s food supply depends on NITROGEN-BASED FERTILIZER. That fertilizer has been made the same way for a century, using energy-intensive levels of heat to break the bonds of nitrogen gas. Engineering dean Emily Carter has spearheaded a new technique to create fertilizer using sunlight to break the bonds. In a Science Advances article in January, she and mechanical engineering postdoc John Martirez describe how the process could slash energy costs, allowing for cheaper fertilizer production worldwide.