December is the time to look back at the year that is ending and make note of the most exciting and newsworthy stories. In science, that means chronicling discoveries, inventions, and advancements. Here are some of the scientific stories that 2014 will be remembered for.
2014 will be remember for exploration as NASA took a “Giant Leap Forward” and humanity landed a probe on a comet. Commercial space flight had setbacks when a Antares rocket exploded on October 28th and a few days later SpaceShipTwo crashed on a test flight, killing one pilot. Such accidents are always a part of developing new technologies, but they may lead to setbacks in the ability of commercial programs to find backers and, eventually, passengers.
NASA ended the year on a high note with the successful test flight of the Orion spacecraft (for which this blog was originally named). The craft is designed to play a crucial role in the “Giant Leap Forward” program which will eventually put astronauts on Mars within 20 years.
The European Space Agency had perhaps the best year of anyone. Their Rosetta spacecraft made contact with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after a ten-year journey. In August it became the first spacecraft to successfully orbit a comet and send back groundbreaking data. Then in November, Rosetta launched the Philae probe in the world’s first attempt to land on a comet. While Philae did land, it encountered several difficulties and was ultimately turned off. The Agency may turn it back on in August 2015, when the position of the comet will be better for charging the solar batteries that power Philae. In the meantime Rosetta will spend a year sending back unprecedented data on the composition and structure of the comet and scientist will be studying the data that Philae managed to broadcast during before being powered down.
Understanding DNA, chromosomes, and their sequences will continue to occupy geneticists for decades – or centuries – to come. In 2014 there were two breakthroughs that stood out in the field.
First, students in the Build a Genome class at John Hopkins University managed to create a yeast chromosome. They did this by synthesizing individual base molecules and inserting them into yeast. Eventually the man-made chromosome replaced the natural one without being rejected. This is the first ever successful creation of a working chromosome.
In other news CRISPR is a tool helping scientists map models of disease in animals. The abbreviation stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and the tool is expected to improve gene-editing abilities leading to better methods of gene therapy.
While Ebola was undoubtedly the lead story of 2014, other viruses were at work and the US government cracked down on labs who handle disease. The latest outbreak of Ebola in west Africa started in Guinea back in March. By December 6,000 people had died and over 17,000 were infected with the disease. This includes over 600 health care workers, two of which were US nurses. Health care workers also had a higher death rate than patients. This outbreak threatens not just the fragile health care system in the area, but also the economies and even governments of nations in the region. The US and other countries have poured millions into aid and research for the disease with new treatments and vaccines currently undergoing clinical trials.
Other diseases that made the news in 2014 included chikungunya, a tropical disease that hit the US for the first time this year and an enterovirus that spread across the US causing respiratory illness, mainly in children.
The first half of 2014 saw several safety issues arise at federally-funded labs handling deadly diseases. Contaminated samples, active viruses being shipped instead of inactive ones, and the discovery of “lost” vials of deadly diseases all indicated a troubling breakdown in protocols. After lengthy congressional hearings and agency reviews, new technology and protocols were put in place to prevent future accidents.
Modern man thinks. That is what sets him apart from ancient evolutionary ancestors who were more animalistic in their reactions to their environment. Or so we like to think. In December researchers published a report describing a shell found in Java, Indonesia. The shell is engraved with a zig zag pattern, indicating that desire to record a symbol. Symbolic thought is considered to be the basis of language and higher intelligence. This shell was created not by homo sapiens or Neandertals (the two species previously proven to exhibit symbolic thought), it was created by homo erectus and has been dated at 430,000 to 540,000 years ago.
ESA photo by ‘European Space Agency – ESA’ courtesy Creative Commons License 3.0
Ebola virus photo by NIAID courtesy Creative Commons License 3.0