2014 is nearly at an end, and with all of our excitement at what is on the horizon, it’s easy to forget what an incredible year this has been for science.
Thankfully for us, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and its academic journal Science has put together a list of what they believe are the biggest breakthroughs of the year, including one stand-out breakthrough and nine runners up.
Here we look at their ten breakthroughs of the year, and consider what they mean for future scientific and technological progress.
Breakthrough of the year: Rosetta module Philae’s rocky comet landing
2014 was a great year for space, and the landing of Rosetta’s landing module Philae on a comet was undoubtedly the pinnacle. By landing on the comet – albeit in less-than-perfect circumstances that involved the module bouncing several times – the European Space Agency made history.
No one had ever landed on a comet before, or even made the incredible journey as Rosetta had, but more importantly the whole mission will provide never-before-achievable data than will inform and shape space research and exploration for many years to come.
“Philae’s landing was an amazing feat and got the world’s attention,” said Tim Appenzeller, news editor of Science.
“But the whole Rosetta mission is the breakthrough. It’s giving scientists a ringside seat as a comet warms up, breathes and evolves.”
Philae’s landing was less than perfect, leaving it partially in shadow, which meant it had to power down early as it could not effectively use its solar panels to recharge. But this is in no way the end for the mission: Rosetta was always going to be the primary collector of data and remains unaffected, and Philae could well power on again as it nears the sun.
By August 2015 Rosetta will be collecting the most data on its mission, and it could provide a variety of insights into how comets form and evolve, and even whether comets aid the development of life.
The data collected by the Rosetta mission will undoubtedly be far-reaching, and may aid human exploration of space as we learn more about life beyond our planet.
“Breakthroughs should do one of two things: either solve a problem that people have been wrestling with for a long time or open the door to a lot of new research,” said Robert Coontz, deputy news editor of Science.
“In this case, most of the really good science lies ahead.”
Repairing ageing in mice
Longevity research is really gaining steam, with some suggesting that living well beyond our current lifespans could be a viable future for some of us alive today.
It is not surprising, then, that research demonstrating that young mouse blood can rejuvenate the brains and muscles of elderly mice was picked as one of the breakthroughs of the year.
If it can be replicated in humans, the consequences could be remarkable, and, with additional research, age-related diseases could one day be a thing of the past.
Some work is already going into replicating the research in humans, with a clinical trial underway to see if plasma from young donors can help patients with Alzheimer’s, and we are likely to see more research projects being initiated in the near future.
Taking a long view, this research could be laying the foundations for remarkable breakthroughs in medical science.
CubeSats in space
It is interesting that this was chosen as a breakthrough, because CubeSats – 10cm squared mini satellites – have been sent into space for over a decade.
However, 2014 was the year where CubeSats’ potential really started to be realised, and are now being incorporated into significant research projects rather than just being a school research project.
For us, one of the biggest uses of CubeSats in 2014 was Outernet, which is bringing a free broadcast-only version of the internet to the world. Although not as wide-ranging as the full internet in content, it will allow highly remote areas to access information that was previously inaccessible.
Our automated pals have come a long way in 2014, and for the AAAS the key breakthrough was software and new robots that are able to work together to achieve a project.
Among these were an array of swarming robots, which can work together to build a simple structure or form shapes. The significance here is the ability to give a group of robots a command or set of commands, and then let them get on with fulfilling it by cooperating.
At present the technology isn’t of major practical benefit, but its potential is huge. One day swarms of robots could build whole buildings in just a few hours, or form escape structures in an emergency.
Combined with other technologies, cooperative robots could revolutionise the way we shape the world, and enable whole cities to be developed and changed in just days.
The breakthrough that earns the creepy prize this year is definitely the work done in memory manipulation in mice. Researchers used light to manipulate neuronal activity – a practice known as optogenetics – in our furry friends, and were able to manipulate specific memories of theirs.
Incredibly the researchers were able to do everything from deleting existing memories and implanting false ones to changing a mouse’s emotional state.
If the research was replicated in humans, it would clearly have huge potential, not all of it good. While there is clear potential in therapy, such manipulation could be used for shadier practices, such as torture or criminal activities. Either way, it will be a very interesting field to follow.
Growing mock beta cells
Growing artificial versions of human cells is a fast developing area in science, and this year two groups successfully developed methods to grow mock beta cells in a lab.
Beta cells live in the pancreas and produce insulin, so having a lab version of them to study is highly significant for research into diabetes.
The growth technology has the potential to be impactful in the wider research into growing artificial organs. Work is in the early stages to create lab-grown organs, with the hope that they will one day eliminate the need for donor organs, and any successful growth of mock human cells will no doubt aid the work towards this.
Chips modelled on the human brain
You’ve probably heard the brain described as an incredibly advanced computer, but we are nowhere near mimicking its complexity. However, in 2014 we got a little closer, with the development of the first “neuromorphic” chips by a number of companies, including IBM.
Designed to process information in the way the brain does, these chips could prove to be the start of incredible computing advancements.
There have been suggestions that such chips could eventually be used to make copies of the human brain – a mind-boggling prospect – or to create computers with complexities to match our own brains. This is a technology we’ll be watching closely in the coming year.
Dinosaurs becoming birds
While this breakthrough was less of our usual fare, it was a remarkable scientific achievement nonetheless.
This year scientists completed extensive research that compared the dinosaur fossil record with modern birds, and identified how certain dinosaur types evolved over time to become smaller and more lightweight, eventually becoming the birds of today.
The research was significant because it reaffirmed the theory that birds had evolved from dinosaurs, and identified how they survived through the period where most dinosaurs died out.
Next time you look at a chicken, try thinking of it as a tiny t-rex.
Insanely old cave art
Also not our usual fare, but utterly cool anyway, was the discovery that a collection of hand stencils and animal paintings in an Indonesian cave were not in fact 10,000 years old, but an incredible 35,000 – 40,000 years old.
This caused a major reshuffling of timelines, and led to the conclusion that Asian humans were making symbolic art at the same time as the earliest Europeans.
The discovery may have major implications for the regions ancient history, and helps us build up a far more accurate map of the evolution of human culture.
Designer protein building blocks
Genetic research saw a key breakthrough this year with the lab-based engineering of an artificial version of E. Coli with two additional nucleotides – the building blocks of nucleic acids such as DNA.
This synthetic version of the bacteria cannot reproduce in the wild, but could be used to make designer proteins that have artificial elements properties that are not found in their natural counterparts.
The research could have potential in a variety of fields, including medicine, chemistry and materials science, and we could well see further developments of this nature as time progresses.
Image 1 courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA. Image 4 courtesy of AsusCreative. Image 5 courtesy of Rama. Image 8 courtesy of woodley wonderworks. Image 9 courtesy of Adam Brumm.