December 20, 2014

A Year in Review: Scientific Advancements of 2014

by Heather Falconer

As we wrap-up another year, it seems appropriate to take some time to think about the scientific advancements made in the past twelve months. From landing on comets to discovering new species in the deepest parts of our ocean, 2014 has certainly not been a quiet one for science. Here, we present some of the top stories from around the world that have excited and intrigued us this year. Are these on your Top 10 list? Tell us in the comments what you think 2014’s most important discovery was.


European Space Agency Rosetta Mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Philae Lander’s View of ‘Perihelion Cliff’ on Comet Surface. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

You would have to live in a bubble to have missed this ground-breaking mission. In August, the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft reached Comet 67P and began its orbit. The spacecraft, launched in March 2004, took more than ten years to reach the comet and is the first ever to orbit a comet and land on its surface (the lander Philae touched down in November). Now that it has arrived, Rosetta will study the nucleus of the comet, as well as its environment. Already, the information being returned from the mission is thought-provoking, showing that the water vapor is “significantly different to that found on Earth. The discovery fuels the debate on the origin of our planet’s oceans” (ESA, “Rosetta Fuels Debate”)


First Detailed Study of Mariana Trench Reveals New Species

From deep space to deep Earth: In December, an international team of scientists returned from the first-ever detailed study of the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific Ocean. The Mariana Trench is the deepest known place on Earth and has been the subject of many expeditions. This Hadal Ecosystem Studies (HADES) expedition, however, differed from past expeditions in that it focused on “sampling a broad spectrum of environments using five deep sea vehicle systems called landers at specifically targeted depths from 5000 m – 10,600 m (16,404 ft. – 34,777 ft.)” (Schmidt, “New Species”). The expedition revealed species like an unknown variety of snailfish – a “white translucent fish [with] broad wing-like fins, [and] an eel-like tail.” The deepest rock samples from the inner slope of the Mariana Trench were also collected, showing “some of the earliest volcanic eruptions of the Mariana island arc.” In many respects, these discoveries are opening up an entire new research direction for marine science.

DNA Analysis Provides Insight into Past and Hope for Future

Since the sequencing of the human genome, research into genetics has been skyrocketing so fast that we often forget there are still a lot of unknowns. In 2014, DNA analysis techniques were used to examine “an unprecedented number of ancient humans…revealing insights into how people, ideas and disease spread around the world” (Science News). This included how early settlers migrated around the world, as well as documented interbreeding between early humans and Neandertals.

On the other end of the spectrum, research into the BRCA gene and ovarian cancer led to a new drug, marketed under the commercial name Lynparza, that in a preliminary clinical trial shrunk or eliminated “ovarian tumors in women whose cancers bore a specific genetic fingerprint and who had undergone at least three prior lines of chemotherapy” (LA Times). The new drug was granted “accelerated approval” by the FDA because of its effectiveness and works “by blocking the action of an enzyme that helps repair DNA. In certain tumor cells, such as those seen in BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers, blocking this enzyme can lead to cell death.” Currently, for “all types of ovarian cancer, the 5-year survival rate is 44%” (American Cancer Society). For many women, this discovery has provided a weapon against what has otherwise felt like an automatic death sentence.


Political and Scientific Advancements Regarding Global Warming and Climate Change

This year also saw some important advancements regarding the politics and science of global warming and climate change. In November, an agreement between the US and China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions set the tone for the Lima Climate Change Conference that took place in December. There, negotiations from over 190 countries took place, leading to pledges to take the Green Climate Fund past its initial $10 billion target, increase transparency and confidence regarding emissions, and adding climate change into the curricula of schools to increase climate awareness (United Nations).

Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from Oct. 1 through Nov. 11, as recorded by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from Oct. 1 through Nov. 11, as recorded by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. Carbon dioxide concentrations are highest above northern Australia, southern Africa and eastern Brazil. Preliminary analysis of the African data shows the high levels there are largely driven by the burning of savannas and forests. Elevated carbon dioxide can also be seen above industrialized Northern Hemisphere regions in China, Europe and North America. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At the same time, NASA released the first ever global maps of atmospheric carbon dioxide from its new Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. The maps “show elevated carbon dioxide emissions across the Southern Hemisphere from springtime biomass burning and hint at potential surprises to come” (NASA). This tool is likely to become an important one in the global monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions.


Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.