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23 December 2014

Top 10 Science Stories of 2014

Estimated reading time Time 6 to read

1. The Ebola Crisis

The scientific issue that has most interested and concerned many of us this year arose in March when the government of the Republic of Guinea reported an outbreak of the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) echoed this a few days later, but as recognized by its director Margaret Chan in a recent interview for the BBC, “the whole world, including WHO, did not see what was unfolding, what was happening before our eyes…We relaxed, only to find out in June that the disease was back.” WHO declared a global emergency on August 8. As of December 12, WHO has recorded 18,152 cases with 6,548 deaths. The epidemic continues in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon said he was confident of the eradication of the outbreak by mid-2015.

Ebola virus. NIAID

2. Rosetta Landing on a Comet

The first artefact created by humans that managed to land on a comet this year has marked a new milestone in the history of space exploration, a technological feat that received extensive media coverage worldwide. On November 12, the Rosetta probe of the European Space Agency (ESA) released its Philae module destined for the surface of the comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The module had a rougher landing than expected, eventually coming to rest in a shaded area where its solar panels failed to keep operating for a long time. But in the hours that Philae was active, it collected reams of information that will help us to understand more about the birth of the solar system. With this mission, we already know that the Chury comet contains organic molecules and that their water is isotopically different from the water on Earth, which seems to rule out the hypothesis that the oceans of our planet had their origin in the impact of this type of object.

Image of the comet during landing ESA / Rosetta / Philae / CIVA

 3. NASA Returns to Space

42 years have already passed since the last time humans travelled beyond the Earth’s orbit, and now the idea is spreading that it is time to revive the spirit of exploration that brought 12 astronauts to the moon between 1969 and 1972. The results of this revival are the NASA projects to send manned missions to the moon, an asteroid or even Mars. However, since the cancellation of the Apollo program, the US agency has not possessed vessels suitable for travelling in deep space. On December 5, the spacecraft for the next generation of space explorers made its debut on a trip without crew. The Orion flew for four and a half hours and survived re-entry into the atmosphere at 32,000 kph and 2,200 degrees Celsius, a crucial test that ended with a successful splashdown in the Pacific, heralding the return of human beings to space.

Lift-off of the Orion spacecraft. NASA / Bill Ingalls

4. The Echo of the Big Bang that Went Out

Astrophysicists are ever closer to witnessing the origin of the universe. While this may seem impossible, it is certain that the first moments of the existence of the cosmos left an imprint that is still observable in the cosmic microwave background, a kind of echo of the Big Bang. In March, scientists using the BICEP2 telescope, located at the South Pole, announced that they had detected the primordial gravitational waves of this echo, a kind of distortion of space-time that provides conclusive evidence of the inflation of the universe that occurred immediately after the Big Bang. The discovery was hailed by the scientific community, but the subsequent publication of the results left some experts feeling that the evidence was weak. In September, the data provided by the Planck Space Telescope of the European Space Agency suggested that the BICEP2 signal was actually interference from cosmic dust. The debate continues.

BICEP2 telescope in the South Pole. Steffen Richter, Harvard University

5. Light and Shadows from Stem Cells

Stem cells is a promising field that is hoped will yield great benefits for the future of personalized medicine. In April 2014, the promise came closer to becoming reality thanks to two teams of researchers who passed the milestone of successfully creating embryonic stem cells genetically identical to adult people. The procedure is similar to that used in 1996 to create Dolly the sheep, but the goal in humans is not to clone people but rather to make organs and tissues for any patient who needs it. However, the science of stem cells also had its dark side in the past year. On August 5, the Japanese scientist Yoshiki Sasai hanged himself at his institute after it was demonstrated that two studies describing a revolutionary and simple method to obtain human stem cells, in which the investigator had participated, were false. According to the evidence, the farce was the work of the lead author, Haruko Obokata, meaning that Sasai was innocent, but in a suicide note he said that he was responsible as deputy director of the centre.

Human embryonic stem cells. Nissim Benvenisty

6. Reverse Engineering of Nature

One of the most original and innovative areas of scientific research nowadays is synthetic biology which tries to sort of reverse engineer nature in order to create designer cells. In 2014, synthetic biology achieved two major breakthroughs. The first, published in March, was the construction of the first artificial chromosome from yeast, the simplest organism with nucleated cells that is used in laboratories. In the future, scientists will be able to design drugs capable of producing medicines, developing bio-fuels or decontaminating spills. Perhaps bioengineers will not only be able to manufacture genes at will, but also the very ability of DNA will be multiplied thanks to the possibility of expanding the genetic code that nature has been using for billions of years. In May, a team of researchers managed to add two artificial bases to those used naturally by the DNA and which are represented by the letters A, T, G and C. The expanded genetic alphabet opens the door to the creation of proteins with hitherto unsuspected functions.

Yeast is the simplest organism used in laboratories. NYU Langone Medical Center

7. Get your Genome Sequenced for $1,000

Since 2003 when the Human Genome Project concluded, forecasts about the future of medicine have imagined a day when the entire sequence of our DNA is within our reach and doctors will be able to read in our genes which diseases threaten us, how to prevent them, and what treatments are best suited for our profile. The first obstacle to fulfilling this prophecy is to lower the cost of sequencing a genome from the three billion dollars which the first test cost, down to an affordable figure that health insurance companies are willing to cover. This amount is usually estimated at $1,000, about 800 euros. On January 14, the company Illumina announced that it had achieved this with its new system HiSeq X Ten. However, experts warn that the interpretation of the rich information contained in a person’s genome is still a hurdle to be overcome.

Set of 10 genome analyzer machines. Illumina

8. The First “Earth” away from Earth

Although the search for alien organisms or evidence of them has so far been unsuccessful, astrobiologists have not lost hope in demonstrating that life is a common phenomenon in the universe that should arise wherever conditions are favourable, as happened on Earth. At least we now have the certainty that the planets in our galaxy are almost countless and the statistical certainty that many of them must be of an appropriate size and with a moderate temperature. This year we have already learned about the first one that meets these criteria: Kepler 186F. Nearly 500 light years away, it was described in April in the journal Science as the first habitable exoplanet with an enormous potential for harbouring life. Everything indicates that in the coming years the catalogue of second earths will multiply.

Artist’s impression of the planet Kepler-186f. NASA Ames / SETI Institute / JPL-Caltech

9. A Giant Virus Resurrected from Ice

Like every year, scientific literature has continued to provide evidence of climate change and predictions about the consequences. And if most of these are frightening, now we have added the possibility that the disappearance of permafrost could release potentially pathogenic micro-organisms that have been preserved in frozen soils. In March, a team of scientists rescued a hitherto unknown virus from the Siberian permafrost that has proven to be the largest ever found, more than one thousandth of a millimetre, a true colossus for its class. After 30,000 years under the ice, Pithovirus sibericum came to life infecting amoebas, its natural hosts. It was just a warning, however, because the virus is not dangerous to humans. But others might be.

Pithovirus sibericum. Julia Bartoli

10. Marine Plankton in Space?

Perhaps the most bizarre scientific news story of 2014 was staged by Russian cosmonauts at the International Space Station (ISS), where a sampling outside the windows of the orbital facility resulted in the alleged presence of remains of marine plankton. This was reported by the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS on August 19, citing the head of the Russian mission to the ISS, Vladimir Solovyev. A NASA spokesman denied any official knowledge of the issue. Meanwhile, in response to a question from a user in the social networks, the German Space Agency DLR confirmed the finding of bacterial DNA, without ruling on the issue of plankton. No scientific conclusion of the Russian experiment has been published yet.

International Space Station today. NASA

By Javier Yanes for Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)


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