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10 Science Headlines That Defined 2015

Radu Alexander


With 2015 winding down, we’re taking a look at some of the biggest headlines from the scientific world this year. Keep in mind that these are not necessarily the most important scientific developments of 2015 but rather the ones that generated a lot of buzz and media attention.

Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

10 Water Found On Mars

The existence of water on Mars has been a hot topic for decades. The more we’ve studied the red planet, the more obvious it’s become that Mars was once a thriving planet with an atmosphere, liquid water, and maybe even life. We’ve known about ice and water vapor on Mars for a while now, but the presence of liquid water, while likely, could not be firmly established.

That changed in October 2015 when NASA announced that the Curiosity rover found evidence that flowing liquid water was still present on the red planet. While scientists are unsure of the sources for the water, they do know that it flows down canyons and crater walls during the Martian summer months.

Of course, this new development has rekindled our interest in finding life on Mars. Before this, we were content with the idea that Mars might have harbored life at some point during its existence, perhaps millions or even billions of years ago. Now we can’t help but wonder whether there might still be life on the red planet.

However, the process of analyzing these new water sources (which have the catchy name of “recurring slope lineae”) will be slow and methodical. There is concern that microbes from Earth will infect the water, which is why Curiosity is unlikely to analyze the water flows even if it does find them. The new challenge faced by space explorers is to develop a microbe-free spacecraft for future study.


9 Noah’s Ark Project

Despite the name, the Noah’s Ark Project isn’t a plan to gather examples of every animal on Earth—just their DNA. Researchers at Moscow State University want to build the largest repository for DNA in history, with plans to store genetic material from every type of creature on the planet.

After the project was announced in late 2014, work began on the first phase in 2015 with hopes that the entire project would be completed by 2018. The first stage alone is estimated to cost $19 million, but that should not be a problem after Noah’s Ark was awarded roughly $194 million with the largest scientific grant ever from the Russian government.

Although the project will be the largest of its kind, there are other programs like it. The Millennium Seed Bank is the largest plant conservation program, and the Frozen Ark Project in Britain stores the DNA of endangered species. In Washington, DC, the National Museum of Natural History currently houses the largest biorepository in the world with over 4.2 million samples.

Work has begun on the Noah’s Ark facility, which will measure almost 430 square kilometers (170 mi2) by the time it is finished. Cellular material will be cryogenically frozen and stored, perhaps even used in the future to bring extinct species back to life.

8 New Horizons

Until recently, we had a limited view of Pluto, the solar system’s redheaded stepchild. Our images of the dwarf planet offered more questions than answers and were begging for a closer look. We finally got what we wanted in July 2015 when the New Horizons space probe did a flyby of Pluto and sent back incredible hi-res images that showed us the dwarf planet in a way we’ve never seen it.

The images from New Horizons provided us with a treasure trove of information on Pluto’s geographical features: long mountain ranges, a heart-shaped plain called the Sputnik Planum, flowing ice passing through Pluto’s valleys, and more. We also got an up close look at Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

New Horizons’ success was a long time coming. The probe was launched in 2006 and did a flyby around Jupiter in 2007. This not only provided the spacecraft with a speed boost through gravity assist but also served as a test for the probe’s onboard instruments.

After that, the spacecraft mostly hibernated on its long journey of 5 billion kilometers until it approached Pluto at the start of 2015. Now that its flyby of the dwarf planet is complete, New Horizons is moving on to provide us with an equally unprecedented look at the Kuiper Belt sometime in 2019.



7 Discovery Of Homo Naledi

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The hominin family tree has not yet fully revealed itself, but we are learning more about it all the time. It got a little bit bigger this year with the addition of Homo naledi, a newly described, extinct species of hominin that some scientists believe to be a member of the Homo genus. Homo naledi was found in the limestone cave network in South Africa known as the “Cradle of Humankind.”

The discovery was actually made in 2013 when a couple of amateur spelunkers stumbled upon the fossils. After extensive searching, 1,550 skeletal pieces were recovered, belonging to at least 15 individuals. It took all this time to properly analyze the recovered bones, which is why the discovery of Homo naledi wasn’t formally announced until September 2015.

Lee Berger, the anthropologist in charge of the team that described Homo naledi, announced that it was a new species of the Homo genus. However, others have resisted this classification until further evidence is obtained. As of December 2015, we have not even dated the bones yet. Based on anatomical features, experts think that Homo naledi might have lived around the same time as Homo erectus and Homo habilis, which is about two million years ago.

Anthropologists have been intrigued by the placement of the bones in the Homo naledi discovery. The dead appeared to have been brought into the cave, which would make Dinaledi Chamber a tomb. Burial practices for a species as primitive as Homo naledi would be unprecedented and would certainly raise new questions about human evolution.

6 Epigenome Map

Back in 2003, scientists completed one of the most ambitious biology projects in history—the Human Genome Project. However, while the genome can be viewed as a road map that shows all the genes that make up our DNA, the epigenome keeps track of all the changes in the structure and function of those genes.

Mapping out the epigenome was considered to be much more difficult but also more useful than the genome map. Understanding the functions of various cell types and, more importantly, being able to “switch” them on or off has vast medical implications. Such changes can trigger the onset of many diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

At the beginning of 2015, scientists unveiled the epigenome map, a detailed collection of 111 different types of human cells. It was quickly followed by dozens of papers and essays that explained the potential ramifications of these new findings.

The mapping project known as the Roadmap Epigenomics Program is far from complete. It was launched in 2008 with $240 million from the US government and is expected to take 10 years to complete.

5 Discovery Of Kimbetopsalis Simmonsae

Besides being an extinct animal with a name that’s hard to pronounce, Kimbetopsalis simmonsae is one of the earliest mammals ever discovered. Living around 65 million years ago, it is believed that this mammal survived the extinction that killed off the dinosaurs. The anatomy and diet of this newly discovered species provided us with great clues about how mammals “took over” after the disappearance of the dinosaurs and became the dominant group of animals.

The name comes from Kimbeto Wash, the area in New Mexico where the fossil was found, with psalis (“cutting shears”) referring to its perfectly preserved, bladelike teeth. Simmonsae is in honor of paleontologist Nancy Simmons. The size of this mammal is estimated at 1 meter (3 ft) long and 10 kilograms (20 lb) in weight.

Kimbetopsalis simmonsae was part of the multituberculates, an early group of mammals that originated during the Jurassic Period and evolved alongside dinosaurs. After the dinosaur extinction, multituberculates thrived for 100 million years before being trounced by rodents and disappearing completely.

This particular multituberculate was part of a subset called taeniolabidoids found throughout North America and Asia. Compared to the other taeniolabidoids that came before it, Kimbetopsalis simmonsae was much larger. The lack of dangerous predators and the animal’s strong teeth allowed it to feast on a lush buffet of vegetation during the Paleogene Period which prompted its growth.



4 World’s First Silicene Transistor

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Photo credit: Junki Sone et al.

A few years ago, an allotrope of carbon called graphene was heralded as the “hot new thing” in nanotechnology. Formed on an atomic scale, it was 200 times stronger than steel, nearly invisible, and a great conductor of heat and electricity. In 2015, another product became the talk of the town—silicene.

It is a new form of silicon that comes in layers just one atom thick. Theoretically, the electrical properties of silicene suggest that it could be used to make incredibly small and powerful computer chips. But in reality, working with this material is extremely difficult, even when testing out its basic characteristics.

However, in February 2015, scientists were successful in creating the first silicene transistor in the world. A joint effort between American and Italian researchers, their process was detailed in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The team says that they have already constructed multiple transistors using this method. Better yet, according to their performance tests, the silicene transistors are living up to their theoretical potential. Even so, the scientists are unsure if this method is commercially viable on a larger scale. But if it is, they believe that silicene could supersede graphene as the future of nanotechnology because silicene would be easier to work with.

3 Seaweed Bacon

Many of us love bacon even though we know it’s not the healthiest food in the world. But what if there was a type of bacon that was actually good for you? Surely, that would be some kind of gastronomic Holy Grail! Thanks to researchers at Oregon State University, there is now such a thing.

It is actually a type of seaweed called dulse that is commonly found in the coastal areas of the Atlantic and the Pacific. It has been harvested and eaten for centuries, so it is not a new discovery. Dulse is part of the “algae superfood” group that people trying to lose weight know all too well. Compared to kale, its more famous counterpart, dulse actually has twice the nutritional value.

Researchers from Oregon State were working on new strains of dulse as a potential food source for abalone. Although that didn’t work, they did notice something quite strange when they fried it up: It tasted just like bacon. The researchers quickly realized that there is a lot of potential for this new seaweed strain to become a human food. They are currently looking into the commercial aspects of bringing it to the public.

Don’t be surprised if bacon dulse becomes the hot, new superfood in years to come. The university has already received interest from multiple vegetarian and religious groups that don’t eat regular bacon.

2 Bringing Back The Woolly Mammoth

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Photo credit: Flying Puffin

Genetic engineering is one of the most highly contested fields of scientific research. Having scientists poke around in your genetic material is often characterized as “playing God,” which is why it sparks so many debates over its moral and ethical implications.

One such technology is known as CRISPR, short for “clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeats.” This technique can be used to modify one gene, multiple genes, and theoretically, even an entire genome. Some scientists believe that it could seriously impede the process of aging. Others think that CRISPR could be used to modify entire species of problem animals like pests while simultaneously creating super crops that would revolutionize agriculture.

CRISPR might also be used for de-extinction. The idea of bringing extinct species back to life might have once been reserved for sci-fi films, but now it’s a real possibility as long as we have the animal’s DNA. Scientists have already started doing it by inserting woolly mammoth DNA into cells belonging to Asian elephants.

We mapped out the woolly mammoth genome a few years ago. With that information, it should be theoretically possible to replicate the woolly mammoth’s entire DNA and insert it into the genome of its closest relative, the Asian elephant. As of late 2015, we simply have some healthy elephant cells with woolly mammoth DNA in them. But it’s a step toward bringing back the animal that became extinct 3,300 years ago.

1 The Alien Megastructure

After years of study, astronomers announced the discovery of a peculiar star with the catchy name KIC 8462852 in September 2015. It is also known as “Tabby’s Star” after lead author Tabetha Boyajian. The star exhibited some curious behavior in the form of unpredictable and erratic light fluctuations.

Normally, a star’s light is blocked by orbiting objects for hours or days at regular intervals that can be predicted once you learn the star’s orbital pattern. That wasn’t the case with Tabby’s Star, so people started questioning whether aliens had anything to do with it.

Once the media got hold of the news, everybody was talking about the giant alien megastructure found around a star 1,500 light-years from Earth. To be fair, these kinds of giant structures have been theorized by scientists for a long time. Something called a Dyson sphere could hypothetically be built by an advanced civilization to orbit or even encompass its star as a nearly infinite energy source.

Scientists were a bit more reserved and skeptical, but they didn’t rule out aliens completely. As of late 2015, we’re almost sure that the cause isn’t aliens, but we still don’t have a foolproof explanation.

We know it’s not a planet because even a giant planet like Jupiter only dims the Sun’s brightness by 1 percent. Tabby’s Star experienced one dip of 22 percent. To cause that, a planet would need to be half the size of the star. Other theories include a cloud of dust and debris, a series of comets, and an irregularly shaped star.

Radu is a history/science buff with an interest in all things bizarre and obscure. Share the knowledge on Twitter or check out his website.