Tagging a comet
Europe’s most ambitious 10-year space mission, Rosetta, captured the public’s imagination with a series of hard-won pictures, and in October, European Space Agency scientists managed to land their probe, Philae, on a comet for the first time in history. Despite the fact that Philae’s transmitters stopped working 57 hours later, the landing has been hailed by journal Science as one of the top breakthroughs of 2014.
In April, NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-186f — a faraway planet that’s perhaps the most Earth-like yet discovered. Out of 1,800 confirmed planets, fewer than two dozen sit in the habitable zone where it’s not too hot and not too cold. It sits some 490 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, and the discovery raises the distinct possibility of other Earth-like planets waiting to be found.
The birth of birds
Scientists found in December how the family tree of modern birds evolved at a faster rate after the mass extinction that wiped out dinosaurs 66 million years ago by studying the genomes of 45 bird species representing every group of living birds.
Stem cell mess
In January, scientists reported what seemed like a huge breakthrough: a simple way to turn almost any kind of cell into stem cells by exposing them to acid or other stresses. As other scientists tried to replicate the findings, the story quickly unravelled. The lead researcher, Haruko Obokata, was found guilty of misconduct, the papers were retracted, and her supervisor and co-author Yoshiki Sasai hanged himself.
In March, astrophysicists using a telescope called Bicep2 at the South Pole said they’d detected the telltale signature of gravitational waves, ripples in space and time created immediately after the Big Bang. This would’ve confirmed cosmic inflation, the theory that the universe expanded extremely rapidly in the first moments of existence. But follow-up analysis suggested the signal could have come from dust.
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission completed three months in Mars orbit last week and was recently named among the best inventions of 2014 by TIME magazine. The spacecraft, which took just four years from feasibility study to arrival at Mars orbit, cost Rs 155 crore — less than the budget for the film Gravity. India became the first nation to reach Mars orbit in its first attempt.
This year, the first baby to grow in a transplanted uterus was born to a 36-year-old Swedish woman. In all, nine women participated in the pioneer project in January where doctors successfully transplanted uteri donated by female relatives. A breakthrough in infertility treatment, it gives hope of having a baby to thousands of women without a uterus.
Researchers demonstrated that blood from a young mouse can rejuvenate the muscles and brains of older mice. A factor called GDF11 was isolated from young mouse blood and found to boost muscle strength and endurance of old mice, rejuvenate the heart, and spur neuron growth. Clinical trials where Alzheimer’s patients are treated with plasma donated by young adults have begun.
In virtually all living things, the natural nucleotide G pairs with C while A pairs with T. The exception is provided by a flask of E. coli on a lab bench in southern California to which a novel pair of nucleotides, X and Y, have been added. This suggests that it may be possible to persuade bacteria to behave in ways they cannot naturally.
Orion test flight
NASA’s new Orion spacecraft made a “bull’s-eye” splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 5 following a journey of about 3,600 miles beyond Earth. The successful test opens a new era of human space exploration.
New greenhouse gases
Five new man-made greenhouse gases were discovered this year. The discovery of three chlorofluorocarbons and one hydrochlorofluorocarbon were reported in March by researchers from the UK, Germany, Australia and France. The fifth, perfluorotributylamine, was discovered by researchers at the University of Toronto.
New research from Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute may have cracked the code to curing diabetes. Scientists were able to turn human embryonic stem cells into fully-mature insulin-producing beta cells and implant them into living tissue. If successful, these studies could point the way towards a cure for both Type 1, 2 diabetes.
Mimicking the architecture of a human brain, engineers at companies such as IBM and Qualcomm rolled out the first large-scale “neuromorphic” chips, which are designed to process information in ways that are more analogous to living brains. It’ll have a huge effect on robotics in the next few years and continue to reshape the way we think of computers and our relationship with them.
Using optogenetics — manipulating neuronal activity with beams of light — researchers showed that they could manipulate specific memories in mice. Deleting existing memories and implanting false ones, they went so far as to switch the emotional content of a mouse memory from good to bad, and vice versa.