Scientific Breakthroughs – 2014 Top 10

Science Fields

In keeping with tradition, the editors of renowned journal Science voted to select the 10 most important scientific accomplishments of 2014, placing the historic rendezvous of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) spacecraft Rosetta with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at the top rung. Other nine choices which Science editors do not rank, again traditionally, crown remarkable breakthroughs in many areas, including genetics, biology, medicine, paleoantology, robotics and electronics.

Top achievement of the year: A “cool” handshake 500 million km away

After a 10-year chase in the darkness of space, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft caught its pitch dark target, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and despite a series of mishaps that plagued the critical operation, managed to place its lander Philae on its surface where it harvested priceless data. Bouncing twice because mechanisms which would anchor it to the comet malfunctioned, Philae came to rest in an awkward position at the foot of a cliff which prevented it from soaking solar energy. But it gallantly completed all the experiments on its roster before its batteries went flat after 57 hours, transmitting the information it compiled on the surprisingly hard crust of the comet, its density, its atmosphere and the gases which sublimed from the frigid, duck-shaped mass of ice and rock. Particularly intriguing was the finding that the ratio of deuterium (a heavier istope of hydrogen) to hydrogen was markedly different from the ratio in Earth’s oceans. This has cast doubt on the increasingly popular theory that its water had been delivered to early Earth by impacting comets, propelling the once-fashionable rival theory, that water tankers were asteroids, to the fore again. 

Self-governing robots

In the field of robotics , the products we were accustomed to see in recent years were those looking more and more human and those shouldering heavy or dangerous tasks, including the military ones. The stars of 2014, however, were those who could communicate with each other and work in harmony.

In an impressive demonstration, a group fielded 1000 identical minibots of coin size which formed squares, stars or other geometrical shapes , working all by themselves. Mini helicopters developed by a different group, communicating via radio with each other, performed intricate manoeuvres without colliding and flew in formation. Individual robots mimicking termites, demonstrated by a third group, built simple structures by following the progress and sensing the required next step.

Giants take to the air (at a price!)

One of the scientific achievements grabbing attention in the year was the unveiling , by evolutionary biologists, of the mechanism by which gigantic dynosaurs, the undisputed rulers of the Earth for some 150 million years, evolved wings to fly to the present day as birds before a series of catacalysmic events combined to wipe them off the face of the Earth. Scientists showed that besides the emergence of feathers and thin, hollow bones, diminished sizes and reduced weights were instrumental in the gained ability of flight.

Elixir of life for real?

Among the accomplishments which made the list was one which hinted at the potential realisation of the mankind’s eons-long quest: the eternal youth. In the study which was a milestone in genetics and biotechnologies, a factor dubbed GDF11 isolated from the blood of a young mouse, was seen to reinforce the muscles and promote growth of neurons in the brain when injected into an old mouse. After another group showed that blood plasma stripped of cells provided the same effects, a clinical experiment was launched in which 18 Alzheimer patients are given transfusions of blood taken from youngsters. 

Chips mimicking the brain

The research conducted by IBM and some other computer companies in 2014 showed that when used in large numbers, “neuromorphic” chips which process information in a way similar to live brain,could successfully perform certain logic tasks. For now, of couse, they are far from coming anywhere near the human brain which works with some 100 billion neurons interconnected with 100 trillion synapses. But a neuromorphic chip IBM developed and named True North contains 5.4 billion transistors and 256 million synapses. The company is now engaged in studies directed at forming more complex networks with large numbers of these chips. 

Cells to cure diabetes

The characteristic of cells which first develop after the fertilization of the egg, called Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC), is their ability to differentiate in time to all types of cells making up the organs and tissues of the body. Scientists first learned how to create lines of these cells in the laboratory and use them in experimental treatments. They then succeeded in coaxing differentiated mature cells into reverting back to embryonic stage to re-convert these “induced Embryonic Stem Cells” (iESC) into desired cells, thus opening the door to the treatment of so-far incurable diseases.

One of these is an autoimmune disease called Type 1 diabetes, which occurs when β cells, secreting the insulin hormone which regulates glucose levels in th blood, are attacked and destroyed by the body’s own immune cells. Replacing the dead cells by ones created in the lab may cure the disease. Two groups came forth with methods bringing the target nearer. One, using both ESCs and the iESCs derived from skin cells,succeded in producing enough number of β cells (200 million) that can be transplanted to a patient at one time, while the other discovered a way to produce one β cell out of every two stem cells. But their use for cure requires their protection from immune attack and several universities are currently engaged in studies aimed to that end. (To see the promising work done at the Biomimetic Materials , Cellular and Tissue Engineering Department of Turkey’s Koç University by Dr. Seda Kizilel and her team, visit: kurious.ku.edu.tr – Science Factories – “Re-arming the body- against itself”).

Discovery smashes European monopoly of pre-historic cave art

Although our forebears were known to have etched geometric designs on fragments of ostrich egg shells nearly 80.000 years ago, “symbolic art” had come to be associated with figures of animals and hunt scenes decorating the walls of caves in Europe, best known of which was in Chauvet, France, dated to BC 39.000–35.000. Although ranking among the best known examples of symbolic art, hand stencils in the Maros caves on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island, produced by mouth-blown dyes on hands placed on the wall, these were believed to be dating back to 10.000 years ago. A new dating based on the decay of uranium isotopes in stalagmite-like protrusions on the stencils, moved them back in time to 39.900 years ago, making it clear that delving in art was not an exclusively European pastime. 

Managing the memories

Formation of memories in the brain is a complex and fascinating process in which billions of neurons take part. Their stability and reliability are subject to the interplay of mechanisms of no less complexity. Fading of memories, “remembered” events which never took place, distortion of some, embellishment of others have long been subjects of aphorisms, dictums and proverbs.

Now, however, scientists have succeeded in making inroads to the physical formation and operation of memories and even manipulating them. Last year , it was shown that by activating their neurons with powerful laser pulses, mice could be made to forget some memories or be installed with fake ones.

In 2014, scientists further demonstrated that the emotional content of mice memories could be altered from negative to positive or vice versa. For instance, a mouse linking the memory of a room with a shock, began associating it with the presence of an attractive female there after its brain was zapped with a laser beam. But despite the impressive progress, researchers caution against runaway expectations, pointing out that the use of memory management techniques for such conditons like post traumatic stress disorder is still a long way off.

New letters for life’s alphabet

Parallel to the expanding knowledge of humans on the genetic information coded in their cells, efforts to manipulate the units making up the code had begun to bear fruits. Various research groups had synthesized artificial bases distinct from the four “letters” used in the genetic code written in the double helix structure of DNA (C [cytosine] which combines only with G [guanine] and A [adenine] which pairs only with T [thymine]) , had attached them to the DNA strands in test tubes, and had even had them copied by the enzyme DNA polymerase. But for the first time in 2014, a group in California linked artificial X and Y bases and appended the pair to the genetic code of a live organism (bacterium Escherichia Coli ). Although the extra pair does not code for anything for now, it opens the way to the potential production of artificial amino acids other than the 20 natural ones making up the DNA, thus providing researchers with the opportunity of developing “designer proteins” which can be used to produce new materials and medicines.

Mini satellites come of age

Mini satellites called “CubeSats” , developed in recent years as hobby material or educational tools for university students, became rising stars of the space industry in 2014.

No less than 75 of these cube shaped satellites with each edge not exceeding 10 cm, built with readily available materials, were lofted into space with increasingly complex taxes to perform.

Chief reason for their popularity is their minimal cost counted in hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to price tags of hundreds of million carried by their big brothers. An added advantage is possibility of launching them in multiples huddled together in the payload cone of rockets alongside the Goliaths, or releasing them in bulk from the International Space Station. And Since their loss would not spell doom for aerospace companies, they can be easily replaced.

Although the meter-sized resolution of the images they collect with their small telescopes are no match for the keen eyes of spy satellites, their abilty to take shortly spaced images is coming to the attention of the far-sighted entrepreneurs. For instance, Planet Labs, operating a swarm of CubeSats , collect and market larger scale data like deforestation, urban development or rivers changing course. Next generation of these Lilliputans are envisaged to be smarter units able to operate as clusters , communicating with radio to keep station and share information. 


  • 1. “2014: Breakthrough of the Year”, Science, 19 December 2014