Giant leaps: Science breakthroughs of the year
The Hayabusa mission After some near-disastrous technical difficulties and a stunningly successful recovery, Japan‘s Hayabusa spacecraft returned to Earth with dust from the surface of a large, S-type asteroid – the first direct sampling of a planetary body in 35 years.
Unravelling human origins Studies of the genetic code of both ancient and modern humans revealed that many humans still carry variations in their DNA that were inherited from archaic humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago, such as the mysterious Denisovans in Asia and still-unidentified ancestors in Africa.
Capturing sunlight In vivid detail, researchers in Japan have mapped the structure of the photosynthetic protein used by plants to split water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The finding may lead to a powerful source of clean energy.
Pristine space gas Astronomers using the Keck telescope in Hawaii to probe the faraway universe wound up discovering two clouds of hydrogen gas that seem to have maintained their original chemistry for two billion years after the big bang. The discoveries show that pockets of matter persisted unscathed amid eons of cosmic violence.
Microbes in the gut Research into the countless microbes that dwell in the human gut demonstrated that everyone has a dominant bacterium living in their digestive tract. The findings helped to clarify the interplay between diet and microbes in nutrition and disease.
Malaria vaccine breakthrough Early results of a pioneering clinical trial of a malaria vaccine, known as RTS,S, involving more than 15,000 children from seven African countries showed that discovering a malaria vaccine remains possible.
Alien solar systems Astronomers had their first good views of several distant planetary systems and discovered that things are pretty weird out there, including a star system with planets orbiting in ways that today’s models cannot explain, a planet caught in a rare “retrograde” orbit, a planet circling a binary star system and 10 planets that seem to be freely floating in space. They are all unlike anything found in our own solar system.
Designer zeolites This year, chemists designed a range of new zeolites, porous minerals used as catalysts and molecular sieves, that are cheaper, thinner and better equipped to process larger organic molecules.
The elixir of youth? Clearing senescent cells, or those that have stopped dividing, from the bodies of mice can delay the onset of age-related symptoms, such as cataracts and muscle weakness. Mice whose bodies were cleared of these loitering cells did not live longer than their untreated cage-mates – but did seem to live better.
Courtsey: The independent