Top Science Stories of 2014

‘Tis the holiday season, and that can only mean one thing: LOTS of year-end lists ranking everything under the sun. In fact, the good folks over at FiveThirtyEight published an article earlier this week with the forthright headline, “There Are Way Too Many ‘Best of 2014’ Lists.” I heartily agree, but that’s not going to stop me from making the problem worse. Just like last year, I’ve decided to rank what I consider the biggest science stories of the year. Reminder: I am not a scientist. I am a historian. The only thing that qualifies me to make this list is that, just like all of you, I am a citizen of the twenty-first century and am therefore witness to the ongoing Scientific Revolution that transforms our lives on a daily basis. If you prefer fancier credentials, you can always check out the lists from Science, Discover, Science News, and Scientific American. As for my list…

transparentmouse10 – Transparent Mice
Mice put up with a lot. Scientists have subjected these little “model organisms” to a never-ending battery of experiments over the years, and this year was no exception. Just last month, scientists in Japan announced that they managed to produce a mouse that was totally transparent using a specially designed chemical agent. This practice, which kills the mouse, is more than a little creepy and certainly worthy of ethical debate, but it has also revolutionized biological imaging. For example, it has helped bioengineers at Stanford produce extraordinarily detailed maps of the mouse’s brain that will ultimately improve our understanding of human brains.

9 – Young Blood Rejuvenates Old Mice
Speaking of mice, one of this year’s most fascinating studies showed that transfusing blood from young mice into the veins of old mice dramatically improved the latter group’s health. (You can read my original entry on this topic here.) If the same holds true for human subjects, it could transform the way we treat the aging population (which is to say, all of us). It will also probably reinvigorate our manic search for the mythical Fountain of Youth. I’m as excited as anyone to learn about the discovery’s potential therapeutic implications, but I’m also a little worried. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’d like to go on record against harvesting babies for their blood.

biobot2final_b8 – World’s First Bio-Bot
The age of biological robots is now upon us. Earlier this summer, scientists unveiled a tiny walking robot that was manufactured and yet partly alive. The contraption was powered by a strip of muscle that had been cultured from cells in a lab and strapped to a plastic apparatus. The muscle flexed and relaxed in response to remotely controlled electrical impulses, causing the apparatus to “walk.” The scientists have dubbed their creation a “bio-bot,” signalling yet another fascinating development in the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology. You can read a detailed explanation about the bio-bot’s strange union between Life and Machine at this link, and you can watch an explanatory video about the bio-bot that is set to rather enchanting music at this link.

thymus-cell7 – Entire Organ Grown from Scratch
The way our health-care system currently works, individuals in need of an organ transplant must wait in line indefinitely until a matching organ becomes available. This system is tragically inefficient, but there is hope that things may change in the near future. Last August, scientists announced that they had successfully cultured a group of cells into a fully functioning organ (a thymus) for the first time, and that the organ operated normally when transplanted into (what else?) a mouse.

 

 

6 – Growing Number of Exoplanets
By the end of last year, scientists had discovered more than 1,000 planets outside our solar system, and the astounding pace of discovery has continued into this year. In February, scientists announced that data from the Kepler space telescope revealed more than 700 previously unknown exoplanets. (Original write-up here.) In August, scientists announced that they had found an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting its star in what is known as the “Goldilocks Zone.” A month later, scientists discovered water vapor in the atmosphere of a Neptune-sized exoplanet, the smallest to date known to harbor water. (Write-up here.) Finally, just last month, scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory captured this awesome image of planet formation around a young star.

geyser-enceladus5 – Getting to Know the Solar System
Exoplanets get most of the press these days, but let’s not overlook the extraordinary number of discoveries within our own solar system. Within the past twelve months, scientists have confirmed that enormous bodies of water lie beneath the surfaces of Titan, Enceladus, and even Earth. (Write-ups here and here.) What’s more, spacecraft have observed water spewing from several heavenly bodies, including the most tantalizing place in the solar system, Europa. Speaking of which, we now know that the frozen crust of Europa is subject to shifting tectonic forces. On top of all that, the Curiosity rover recently snapped this photograph of layered sedimentary rock on Mars, which strongly suggests that water once flowed there.

Untitled4 – Life Thrives Beneath Antarctic Ice
Our home planet positively abounds with Life. Scientists have long known about extremophiles, a unique class of organisms that can somehow survive in the harshest of conditions, but they gained an even greater appreciation for the extremophiles’ resiliency this year. In August, scientists announced that they retrieved samples from a sub-glacial lake buried beneath more than a half-mile of ice in Antarctica, and that, lo and behold, the sample contained microbes. The report not only affirms that “life finds a way” to survive, but it has also reinvigorated hopes that NASA will send a spacecraft to the aforementioned Europa in the near future. The idea is even gaining support in Congress. If you’d like to endorse such a plan, you can shoot an email to your local congressional representative at this link.

603px-Comet_67P_on_19_September_2014_NavCam_mosaic3 – Comet Rendezvous
No other scientific event captured the public imagination more than the Philae lander’s admittedly bumpy landing on Comet 67P a few months back. I was especially pleased to see so many Americans celebrating the achievement, even though it was the European Space Agency that executed the mission. When #wecanlandonacometbut began trending on Twitter, it made me realize how nice it is to employ the plural pronoun “we” in reference to “we” the people of Earth rather than “we” Americans. Anyway, the lander remains in hibernation (original write-up here), but the Rosetta spacecraft remains in orbit around the rubber-ducky-shaped comet. Stay tuned over the next few months. It’s expected that the comet may undergo radical transformation as it draws nearer the Sun.

dn25529-1_3002 – Expanding DNA’s Alphabet
For the past few billion years, every single organism that has ever lived on planet Earth has been constructed from DNA that contains four bases – adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). That changed this year, when scientists announced that they had created a “semi-synthetic” organism whose DNA contained six bases – A, T, C, G, and two additional bases that the scientists dubbed X and Y. At least one publication described the resultant organism as the first life with “alien” DNA, and even mused whether it might be possible to construct an organism without any of DNA’s traditional four bases. You can learn more about the science and the motivation behind this startling development at this link.

1 – Implantable Technology
I first learned about implantable technology when On Point devoted an entire episode to the topic around this time last year, but the field has advanced dramatically since then. In August, scientists announced that they had devised a method of “manipulating memories” in mice by beaming a steady stream of light on previously implanted light-sensitive proteins. (Click here to learn more.) Meanwhile, just last month, scientists implanted a person’s brain with an electrode array that not only controlled a robotic arm, but also stimulated that person’s brain to experience “touch.” And finally, scarcely four weeks ago, another group of scientists announced that they had successfully placed an electronic implant inside a mouse, that they had then directed the silk-based implant to release medicine on command using a wi-fi signal, and that the implant then dissolved and was harmlessly absorbed into the mouse’s body. In other words, the future is now.