The Year in Science: Top Discoveries of 2014

From landing the Philae spacecraft on a comet to extending life’s genetic alphabet, 2014 has been a very busy – and successful – year for […]

From landing the Philae spacecraft on a comet to extending life’s genetic alphabet, 2014 has been a very busy – and successful – year for science.

The year began on a worrying tone as in January news was announced of the ‘irreversible decline’ of Antarctica’s mighty Pine Island Glacier. Covering more than 160,000 sq km, the glacier is expected to be a significant contributor to the global sea level rise. Interestingly, the group responsible for modelling the behaviour are not sure whether human activity is to blame for the event.

In May this year, researches engineered an unnatural nucleotide pair – X and Y – which fits with the DNA double helix. In a flask of E. coli in a lab in south California, life now exists containing a totally unique genetic language. Although, for now, the new letters don’t code for anything, the breakthrough has massive implications for biotechnology.

July marked the beginning of an exciting few months for spaceflight with the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory – a satellite capable of making detailed carbon dioxide measurements from space. In 2009, its predecessor was launched and burnt up on re-entry having taken no measurements. This time, however, everything has gone to plan. The satellite will scan the planet in low-earth orbit, monitoring CO2 concentrations using spectrometers and reflected sunlight.

Last year, researches manipulated specific memories in mice by ‘zapping’ their brains with beams of laser light. This August, they went one step further in changing the emotional content of memories, turning good memories to bad and vice versa. After the treatment, male mice that had previously associated a room with being shocked now behaved as if they had once met a female mouse there. Whether the mice now experience vivid false memories or just some sense of positive or negative emotion remains to be seen.

Although the quest to use human embryonic stem (ES) cells against disease has been frustratingly slow, things took a turn for the optimistic this October when researchers reported a significant step towards finding a cure for diabetes. Using both ES and induced pluripotent stem cells the scientists were able to create functional pancreatic β-cells – the cells that are destroyed by the autoimmune response in type 1 diabetes patients.

At the end of the same month, science took another knock as the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo exploded on a test flight. The new space ship design had been making steady, if slow, progress towards full operation. Though the cause of the crash has not yet been determined, the crash has set back the chances of commercial space flight this decade significantly.

In what was voted by the Science editors as the breakthrough of the year, the Rosetta mission succeeded in November with the touchdown of lander vehicle Philae on Comet 67P. Though the spacecraft unfortunately entered hibernation soon after landing, the event in itself was quite a feat. In the words of NASA systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, ‘[the] comet landing was like jumping from a bus moving 41000 miles/hr onto another.’ The team hope to re-establish communications with the lander in 2015.

December ended the year with some more spaceflight-related success. NASA successfully launched and returned to Earth their Orion crew vehicle. The craft is hoped to be the foundation of NASA’s programme of human exploration with the aim that it will carry the first humans to Mars. The capsule was flung into high elliptical orbit, and travelled further from Earth and faster than any human-rated vehicle in more than 40 years.

About Natasha Gillies

An undergraduate Biological Sciences student at Merton