December 30, 2015

Selected Science of 2015

by Eric Dillalogue

With 2015 coming to a close, here’s a selection (and by no means a complete list) of some of the significant science stories of the year:

 

Homo naledi expands the Homo genus

As Prof. Nathan H. Lents wrote in October, the excavation of the Homo naledi fossils in South Africa was one of the most important discoveries in paleoanthropology. The find also brings up questions about Homo as a whole and how to accurately map the genus. As Prof. Lents notes:

The truly remarkable discovery of the fossils will reverberate for some time, but the biggest impact may come not from what we learn about how these early Pleistocene apes lived, but in how we think about our own species of ape and what it really means to be human.

©Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, UK

 

NASA accomplishes (more) amazing things

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, does incredible work and could easily fill up this list of important science stories: the discovery of water on MarsOpportunity and Curiosity continued to operate on the surface of the red planet, New Horizons explored Pluto, Voyager I entered interstellar space, the Hubble telescope turned 25, plus several other important mission milestones. Add to that the work NASA, along with partners, has done in developing new propulsion methods and Earth monitoring systems, and it’s clear the organization had another stellar year.

An enhanced color image of recurring slope lineae (RSL) on Mars. ©NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

 

A ‘Godzilla El Niño’

In the U.S. northeast it seemed like a tropical holiday period with record-setting warm temperatures, incredible floods occurred in Britain, and Australia saw massive wildfires – these are just some of the impacts attributed to a “Godzilla” El Niño phenomenon.  Though part of nature’s natural fluctuations in weather patterns, there are also concerns that the impact of this El Niño has been increased by climate change.

Temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific are warmer than average as this year’s El Niño gathers strength. (Credit: NOAA/ESRL/PSD)

 

CRISPR grows in importance and raises concerns of science ethics

CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeat, is a tool for editing genomes by leveraging a natural defense mechanism in some bacteria. In these organisms, sets of DNA are repeated several times over and are spaced out by unique groups of other genetic information. Bacteria use the CRISPR system to create enzymes (called Cas – CRISPR associated proteins) that can cut DNA in a precise manner. And researchers have leveraged this feature to edit the genomes of a wide variety of organisms: plants, animals, even humans. The method is Science‘s “Breakthrough of the Year,” but is raising many ethical concerns about editing genes in such a powerful manner.

 

Quantum entanglement (likely) proven

Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance” and the idea of quantum entanglement defies our common experience of the world. In it, particles separated by some distance are not discrete, separate things, but a unit or system where performing an action on a local particle affects the other distant particle. The physicist John Bell proposed an experiment to test entanglement in the 1960s and in 2015 scientists were able to entangle electrons 1.3 km apart, measuring their spins over 18 days. The result: proof that quantum entanglement exists and can be experimentally proven.

 

Bananas, as we know them, are threatened

You might not think much about the common banana you encounter at the supermarket. The fruit you most likely encounter, one that is part of the Cavendish group of bananas, is a mutant: a genetic copy that lacks any means to propagate itself (due to the convenient – for eating purposes – lack of viable seeds). Cavendish bananas are reproduced asexually, through offshoots and cuttings, which means all of the plants share the same genetic profile. Before Cavendish the most important banana group agriculturally was the Gros Michel (also propagated asexually), until that group was effectively wiped out by Panama disease (the fungus Fusarium oxysporum). Now the Cavendish group, which is resistant to the original Panama disease, faces the same fate as the Gros Michel with a newer strain of Fusarium plus another fungus, Black Sigatoka, attacking the plants. Steadily, plantations of these commonly-eaten banana trees are dying off across the world. Though bananas won’t go extinct, the one you’re most familiar with probably won’t be on a supermarket shelf in coming years.

Eric Dillalogue

Written by

Eric Dillalogue holds a MS in Library and Information Science and a BA in English. He has worked in a variety of roles from service industry management, academic libraries, and grant administration. He has taught courses on information literacy, web research, and developmental reading. Eric joined the Visionlearning team as a project manager in 2014.