As the year 2015 comes to an end, let’s take some time to look back and appreciate some of the scientific achievements we have made throughout the year:
1. NASA flies by Pluto and Ceres
Without a doubt, we will always remember 2015 as the year NASA reached (and photographed) the dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres. Back in July, the New Horizons probe reached its closest approach to Pluto and took some incredibly amazing photographs. As these new high-resolution images of Pluto filter in over the next 16 months, scientists will begin to better understand its structure and history. Meanwhile, Dawn’s close approach to Ceres back in March marked the first succesful mission to ever visit, and study a dwarf planet. The images NASA will obtain from this mission will shed light on the origins of Ceres and expand our knowledge on the nature of dwarf planets.
2. NIH retires chimpanzees from research
As of September 14 this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service has officially classified chimpanzees as endangered. While the NIH had already retired most chimpanzees from their labs back in 2013, they had kept several ones “just in case”. Those remaining chimps were retired this year, as the NIH director declared no immediate or future need to conduct research on chimps. While government researchers may no longer use chimpanzees, a few private laboratories still own them. How the endangered classification will affect those companies remains unclear. Fortunately, the barriers one must overcome to use chimpanzees for research are now greater than they’ve ever been.
3. Scientists grow contracting human muscle in the lab
Of course, writing can’t do this discovery any justice, so here’s a video:
4. Scientists recover the DNA sequence from a 4,500-year old human fossil
The best way to learn about the history of our human ancestors is though their DNA. While it’s certainly possible to extract DNA from fossils, scientists have had problems getting DNA from the fossils found in Africa. Scientists presume the reason for this is that the DNA is not able to withstand a constant barrage of harsh ultraviolet rays from the strong African sun. Nor would it withstand the constant humidity of the African tropics. However, scientists found that some DNA can, and that the best place to look is around the inner ear. Using a sample from that area, scientists obtained the complete genome sequence of a 4,5000-old human from Ethiopia. As we continue to gather more DNA sequences from other African fossils (now that we know where to look for them), we can better trace the history, migration, and evolution of our human ancestors across time.
5. NASA finds the best evidence yet of water on Mars
For a while, scientists have observed distinct streak patterns on the surface of Mars. While they’ve always suspected that flowing water formed such streaks, there was never any concrete proof to support their theory. This September, scientists finally produced convincing evidence that those streaks were indeed made by flowing water. Specifically, they detected magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and sodium perchlorate in these streaks, all of which are hydrated salts requiring water for their formation. Now, whether there is (or was) life on Mars remains unknown. The fact that Mars likely has water means that there is at least the possibility for some form of life to exist.
6. The Candid Scientist
Of course, another great scientific achievement – if I say so myself – was the birth of The Candid Scientist blog. I’d like to give a big thank you to all my readers, and an even bigger one to all my followers. Overall, 2015 was a successful first year and I can only hope that 2016 will bring more of the same.
Happy New Year everybody, see you in 2016!