It was a monumental year for science. There were groundbreaking discoveries across numerous concentrations, but the ever-confounding curiosities of space and medicine led the pack. Our imaginations were tickled by New Horizons’ flyby of the bemoaned ninth rock from the Sun, Mars finally stopped playing coy and proved it had water all along and the Kepler spacecraft found us a potential new home.
Meanwhile, tireless researchers in the medical field discovered the first new antibiotic in 30 years, created a bionic lens that can perfect human vision and may have found a vaccine to rid the world of HIV.
Yes, 2015 was a banner year for science nerds, with a new, essential discovery happening nearly every day. Here are the 10 best:
It was a big year for fossils, and an even bigger calendar for evolutionary science. In March, a 2.8 million-year-old jawbone was found in Ethiopia, extending the Homo genus’ evolutionary timeline by 400,000 years. Then, in September, a collection of “weird” and “bizarre” bones were found in a South African cave. Not much is known about them, but scientists considered the remains different enough from anything previously known to garner a new classification of species, Homo naledi, a discovery that could force scientists to rethink human evolution.
The belief that matter exists in three states, solid, liquid or gaseous has been around for generations, but that changed this year. Joining the big three is “Jahn-Teller metal,” which is not a catchy name but is an important discovery. In this new, cool state localized electrons on the fullerene molecules demonstrate coexistence with metallicity. It won’t permeate everyone’s lives the way most matter does, but the new state is influential for the world of superconductors.
After being knocked down in 2006, Pluto made a huge comeback this year when the New Horizons probe completed a flyby of the dwarf planet. The flyby produced a bevy of discoveries, many of which are still being analyzed and considered, but among them are Pluto’s significant geological activity that includes mountain ranges and nitrogen glaciers.
Dr. Garth Webb, an optometrist in British Columbia developed the Ocumetics Bionic Lens which could give patients perfect vision and removes the chance of cataracts because the new lens replaces the existing, natural one. Even more impressive, Webb says the surgery can be done in eight minutes and will immediately correct the patient’s vision. The lens is custom-made and inserted like a taco into a saline-filled syringe, then placed into the eye where it unfolds within 10 seconds. Depending on how animal and human trials go, the new lens could be available within two years, and could completely change the eyecare industry.
The pesky lack of oxygen in space is a major hindrance to increased exploration, as is the inconsistent results with growing plants outside of Earth. Enter Julian Melchiorri, a Royal College of Art graduated that invented the first man-made, biologically functioning leaf. Made out of chloroplasts and silk protein, the leaf is capable of absorbing carbon dioxide and light, converting it into oxygen. The most obvious application is for space travel, but Melchiorri sees Earth-bound applications as well, like providing bursts of fresh air in otherwise stale office buildings.
If you’re like me and not on the up and up with the world of antibiotics, you’ll be surprised to learn that doctors have used the same antibiotics for decades to fight disease. In that time, the diseases have fought back, many developing resistances to common antibiotics. Early in 2015, a team from Northeastern University in Massachusetts put a notch in the win column for medicine when it discovered Teixobactin, the first new antibiotic in 30 years. The team used it to treat drug resistant disease-infected mice and hope to begin human trials within two years. If those trials go well, Teixobactin could be instrumental in treating the mutated, resistant diseases, and the method used to discover it could lead to more antibiotic findings.
The prospect of water on Mars has been debated for decades, but 2015 finally gave us a definitive answer. Sadly, the water found on the Red Planet is not in the same family as Earth’s vast oceans, lakes and rivers. Instead, the water is what’s called “recurrent slope linae” and is thought to be the Martian equivalent of seasonal melt water. Nonetheless, the discovering of flowing, liquid water on Mars is groundbreaking, and could lead to more revelations about the planet’s history.
Using human cells that had progressed beyond stem cells, but were not yet muscle, a team at Duke University grew muscle that contracts and responds to stimuli just like native tissue. Though not expected to revolutionize the medical world in terms of growing new tissue for humans, the work done at Duke is still monumental. The ability to grow muscle tissue in a lab could lead to safer drug testing and medical experiments, removing living humans from the equation.
The search for a second Earth has been at the forefront of science, and science-fiction, for years, and now scientists have found an exoplanet so similar to our home it’s been dubbed “Earth 2.0.” The planet is located in the Cygnus constellation and orbits the G-Class start Kepler 452. There are numerous parallels, such as the same size orbit around the same kind of star and same year length, to make scientists excited about the prospect of life on the planet, or the potential of it being a second home for the human race. The issue of distance is real, however, as Kepler-452b is 1,400 light years from Earth.
The fight against HIV and AIDS took a huge step forward in 2015 when researchers at the Scripps Research Institute developed a vaccine that was incredibly effective against HIV-1, HIV-2 and simian immunodeficiency virus. The key difference here is the new HIV vaccine actually alters DNA to fight off the virus, rather than injecting a weakened form into the body so the immune system can learn to fight it. The research is still in the early stages, but the results thus far are extremely promising and if they continue to be, HIV treatment will become far simpler.