Yes, it’s a list! Five Profoundest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

Okay, 2013 is as good as over, and you’re no doubt currently bombarded by countdowns and reviews describing cultural highlights from the last 12 months. Basically, it was all twerking, One Direction, Rob Ford, North West-Kardashian, Edward Snowden, horsemeat, and Syria. I get it. (Please make it stop…)

There has also been no shortage of science-related highlights lists for 2013. I refer you in particular to those from io9, Gizmodo, and Wired, as well as Ed Yong‘s anti-list of “hidden gems”. These are certainly all top notch.

But, as ever, my purpose is to blog about the way science is greeted by regular Joes/Josephines like you. The hoi polloi. The masses. The great unwashed, as it were. Yes, you, dear reader.

(By the way, did I ever tell you that you are my favourite reader? [FYI: Do please take a moment to locate your nearest ‘Share’ and ‘Like’ buttons (hint: they’re behind you)]).

So I’m not looking for bells and whistles and fancy data visualisations, I’m looking for profundity. I’m looking for the type of science that makes us re-think what it actually means to be us. The science that makes us go “Woah, horsey!” or even, at times, “Cowabunga!


#5. Meat is not what it once was

You might think that I’m talking about the horsemeat scandal here. But I’m not. Basically, I’m talking lab-grown meat, the meat that gives a whole new definition to the term ‘meat’.

I know what you're thinking. What's with the knife and fork!?
I know what you’re thinking. What’s with the knife and fork!?

Apparently, the various assembled “food critics” thought that the stuff tasted, well, not that great. Also, it cost €250,000, which is pretty steep, although I suspect you can get a meal deal with discounted fries and a drink. And don’t forget the free salt.

But it’s still pretty awesome to think that actual meat can now be grown under controlled conditions without needing to harm any actual animals.

So, what next for vegetarianism?


#4. Disease and disability? Meh.

Now it’s always ill-advised to overhype medical developments, but it is clear that we have made some significant strides in 2013. For example, after thirty years a-tryin’, scientists have basically found a way to cure HIV. Seriously.

Quotation marks are salient, but nonetheless…

After administering a course of antiretrovirals unusually early to a HIV-positive baby, medics at the University of Mississippi found that the baby exhibited no subsequent HIV symptoms. And just two weeks after the findings were reported, along came a group of French researchers from the Pasteur Institute who had observed pretty much the same effect in adults. In fact, they showed this effect in as many as fourteen adults (the trick of the research was to have selected 14 ‘pure’ cases of extra-early antiretroviral treatment from a cohort of 70 adults enrolled on a broader study). One of the adults had gone more than 10 medication-free years with no HIV return.

These findings were certainly serendipitous. The Mississippi docs had administered the antiretrovirals to the baby on a purely precautionary basis, and then ended up losing contact with the child entirely for ten months. The fact that the child re-emerged symptom free after this time was just luck. But nonetheless, these discoveries show the plausibility of there being a pharmacological method of eliminating HIV within our current grasp.

In other HIV news, researchers in 2013 also developed a method for sucking HIV out of people using bone marrow transplants, as well as an apparently effective anti-HIV vaccine. Go science! Given that 34 million people worldwide currently live with HIV/AIDS, including over 10% of the population of several sub-Saharan countries, the implications for humanity at large are just enormous.

(Pic: Gizmodo)
(Pic: Gizmodo)

Not content with curing AIDS, medical scientists also busied themselves with injecting photosensitive cells into eyes in order to cure total blindness, perfecting the method for human hand transplantation, successfully grafting a next-generation fine-motor bionic hand, cloning an entire mouse from a single drop of blood, and finding a way to switch off the extra chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome.

For good measure, scientists also discovered a new body part. In humans. It was there all along, right before our eyes. In fact it was in our eyes — it’s a tiny layer in the human cornea, now named Dua’s layer. (This kind of made up for the false alarm earlier this year concerning the claimed discovery of a new part of the human knee, which turned out not to be a new body part at all.)

And scientists discovered a gene that contributes to longevity. Funnily enough, it also contributes to human personality, thereby helping explain how some measures of personality turn out to be statistically associated with lifespan.

A lot done, more to do, etc. etc. But still pretty cool.


#3. We’re still discovering places and species we had no idea were there

We all remember the whole ‘lost world’ concept, where intrepid explorers embark on a dangerous expedition and end up discovering an unknown habitat populated by a panoply of supposedly extinct and previously unseen species. We saw it in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel. We kind of saw it in the sequel to Jurassic Park. We even saw it in Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (well, I did).

In 2013 we saw it in real life.

It's new. It's Australian
It’s new. It’s Australian

To be fair, these particular explorers — scientists from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia — didn’t find dinosaurs roaming the mountain rainforests of Cape Melville, nor did they find any new mammals, but they did take humanity’s first steps into this ecosystem and within days found a new gecko, a new frog, and a skink, all immediately logged with Zootaxa. One of the cool bits of this story is that the scientists used satellite imagery and, wait for it, Google Earth to locate suitable landing spots for their helicopter.

This wasn’t the only new part of the world to be uncovered in 2013. Scientists also stumbled across the world’s biggest volcano and a previously unknown canyon that just happens to be bigger than the Grand Canyon. Yep, they were just sitting there all along without being noticed. Admittedly, they are both under the sea. However, they’re pretty big (to say the least) and nobody knew they were right there until 2013. And, get this: in 2013 scientists even discovered a new continent on Earth. Yes. They did.

And when it comes to new species, well, 2013 saw a whole bunch of new beasts joining the list, some of them with great aplomb. See here this gallery, which contains merely a subset of the newbies:

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And that’s just a selection. We can add to that the DNA traces of 3,000 separate microbial organisms, buried in ice for 15 million years, that were found by researchers studying the Antarctic lake, Vostok.

Basically, if you thought we knew where everything was on Earth, and that we have finished with stuff like map-making and species-listing, you were wrong. Don’t be fooled by sat nav logic. “Explorer” is still a good stable job, with significant growth potential.


#2. We’re surrounded by aliens (probably)

Turns out there are lots of other planets. Well, I guess we already knew that, but now we have more of an idea as to the practical scale of things. In brief, researchers at Caltech have now established that there are somewhere between 100 billion and 400 billion planets just in our own galaxy alone. These are really staggeringly large numbers. Moreover, at least 2 billion of these planets are capable of sustaining — and therefore evolving — life similar to that seen on Earth. Two billion. Just in our own galaxy, the good old Milky Way. Over one in five of the Milky Way’s stars (the ones you look at in the night sky) are orbited by potentially habitable Earth 2.0-style planets.

Let’s of course remind ourselves that the Milky Way is but one teensy weeny galaxy in the universe, a speck among a panoply of 500 billion (that’s 500,000,000,000) other galaxies, each of which itself contains billions upon billions of planets capable of sustaining — and therefore evolving — life similar to that seen on Earth.

Until recently, these were just extrapolations. But now we’re beginning to physically locate these places. We owe it all to NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, first launched in 2009. This year Kepler identified three new planets that are like the Earth in terms of size, atmosphere, and environment. NASA named them Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f, and Kepler-69c. It is helpful to bear in mind the sheer needle-in-haystack probabilities involved here. These habitable planets are just three from more than 3,000 exoplanets (i.e., planets outside our own sun’s solar system) charted by the Kepler spacecraft over the last four years or so.

kepler 62f
3,000th rock from our sun

And even within our own solar system, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been doing its thing quite effectively. You can even follow its exploits on Twitter (seriously, it’s very cool to get daily updates and pictures from Mars). As well as detecting abundant actual water in soil samples, Curiosity established that the soil composition on Mars was once capable of supporting living organisms. Life on Mars, in other words (oh alright then, the “potential for” life on Mars).

Between them, Kepler and Curiosity are making it clear that our universe is teeming with habitable environments, and that the idea that our Earth is the only rock out there to have become life-infested, over all the millennia, is a statistical stretch of the most absurdly self-aggrandising proportions. Every passing year reinforces the point in more detail.


#1. Life on Earth predates, erm, Earth itself…

Get this. Based on extrapolation of genetic complexity, scientists from the US National Institutes of Health have worked out that life began 9.7±2.5 billion years ago. Specifically, it took some 5 billion years for life of the complexity of bacteria to evolve.

That’s all very well, except for the fact as far as science can tell, the Earth itself was formed just 4.54 billion years ago. So we have an interesting situation here…


The researchers involved say that the finding supports the view that life did not begin de novo on Earth, but probably emerged as a kind of infection carried here by debris, meteors, cosmic dust and the like (a long-standing theory known as panspermia).

So basically, we’re all aliens now. Or at least that’s the theory.

Happy New Year!


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