Say what you will about this last year, but you have to admit that 2018 heralded some fascinating breakthrough scientific discoveries.
For the first time, genealogy helped law enforcement officers solve a decades-old murder case and put an alleged serial killer behind bars (and a few others as well). We saw mice that were born to same-sex parents using stem cells go on to have healthy offspring. Male birth control pills were shown to be safe and effective in a trial study (a big win for biological womankind). A groundbreaking HIV vaccine was set to begin human testing in 2019, even though a certain administration suspended research to look for a potential cure. The ozone layer may be on its way to being fully healed by 2060, according to a UN report, while the Great Barrier Reef showed “significant signs of recovery” (although the overall future of the world’s coral reefs still looks pretty grim).
In no particular order, here are just a few of our favorite scientific breakthroughs over the last 12 months.
In March, a crew of amateur aurora chasers spotted a narrow band of celestial purple lights dancing in the night sky, believed to be a new form of aurora. Adorably, the crew named their new aurora STEVE as an adage to the kid’s movie Over the Hedge, where one of the characters arbitrarily names the phenomena Steve.
“STEVE is essentially a very narrow, usually very faint, curtain of mauve-colored light south of the primary Aurora – or north, if you're in the Southern Hemisphere – reaching from the eastern horizon to the western horizon," Chris Ratzlaff, one of the aurora chasers who helped to discover STEVE, told IFLScience. "Usually, it’s quite subtle, but it’s been caught a few times quite bright."
That’s when NASA stepped in (because who wouldn’t with a name like that?) and wrote in Science Advances that STEVE was indeed a new subauroral structure. They let the name stand, giving the acronym the full title “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.”
Still, some contend STEVE may be an imposter – a mystery we can only hope 2019 will solve.
Just when we thought we knew it all, there goes science surprising us with a new human structure. Dubbed the interstitium, scientists say the new microanatomic structure could be the source of lymph, the fluid containing white blood cells that is essential to a healthy immune system. Writing in Scientific Reports, the researchers note that the network could play a significant role in maintaining health and advancing the spread of diseases like cancer.
Before this, the scientific realm generally agreed that the interstitium layers were dense connective tissues, but the researchers argue that they are instead fluid-filled compartments supported by collagen and elastin that act like shock absorbers to protect our tissues from tearing throughout the day. The finding may explain why cancer that invades this cell highway is more likely to spread as it drains into the lymphatic system and spreads throughout the body.
However, some researchers say the word "organ" is not correct for the newfound role of the interstitium. "Most biologists would be reticent to put the moniker of an ‘organ’ on microscopic uneven spaces between tissues that contain fluid," said Anirban Maitra, a pathologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, to The Scientist.
Still, it’s some pretty promising work, especially considering just last month researchers found a cancer “kill switch” that can be used to destroy any type of cancer cell – and it’s found in the human body.
This one gave us all a serious case of whiplash. In May, UCLA scientists successfully “transferred” memories from one marine snail to another. To start, the team administered small electric shocks to the snails' tails in batches of five, 20 minutes apart, followed by another set of five the next day. Though the shocks weren’t strong enough to harm the snails, the stimulation did cause the snails to withdraw back into their shell. They then tested the response of snails who had undergone this “shock therapy” with those who had not, with results comparable to Pavlovian conditioning.
Basing their work off the theory that memories are stored in modified DNA, researchers then extracted nervous system RNA from each group of snails and injected them into the other. Snails who had not been shocked but received RNA from their shocked counterparts withdrew as much as those who had received the shocks.
"It's as though we transferred the memory," said senior author David Glanzman in a statement.
For decades, we’ve been searching for water on Mars, and in 2018 we found it! That’s right. Writing in the journal Science, researchers in Rome say they have found a reservoir of water beneath the south pole of Mars that looks similar to a subglacial lake on Earth, one in which life could arise.
“This is potentially the first habitat we know of on Mars,” Roberto Orosei, from the National Institute of Astrophysics, told IFLScience at the time. “It’s the first place where microorganisms like those that exist today on Earth could survive.”
The data was found using a radar instrument on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express between May 2012 and December 2015. It shows that 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) below the surface, a region called Planum Australe, is home to a source of liquid water that spans around 20 kilometers (12 miles) across. Researchers don’t know how deep it goes, but they believe it’s at least deeper than a few tens of centimeters.
Back at home, we know that liquid water almost always spells life. So does this discovery mean we could be on our way to discovering life beyond Earth? Perhaps. Earlier this year, researchers announced that the Mars rover had successfully detected organics on the planet and also reported that levels of methane in its atmosphere show strong seasonal variations.
In September, archaeologists discovered the world’s oldest human drawing in a cave in South Africa dating back more than 70,000 years. They said at the time that this discovery “pre-dates the earliest previously known abstract and figurative drawings by at least 30,000 years.” The drawing was composed of cross-hatched patterns of six lines crossed with three lines on a silcrete flake. The team believe it was made by hunter-gatherers who used the Blombos Cave for stays of a week or longer.
Just last month, archaeologists found what they believe to be the oldest known figurative painting – those resembling real things like a person or, in this case, an animal – in a limestone cave in Borneo. Also publishing their work in Nature, the team notes that the painting likely dates back at least 40,000 years.
For more than 1,000 years, an ancient city hidden below Guatemala’s lush Petén rainforest was left untouched by humans – that is, until 2018 rolled in with a hard slap to the face. For the first time ever, a team of international archaeologists have mapped this sophisticated mega-city, and they did so using airborne light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR).
Archaeologists first discovered the sprawling empire in February, but it took the team six months to confirm the presence of more than 61,000 ancient structures, including houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, and pyramids. Based on their findings, the team estimate between 7 and 11 million people were present here at the height of the Late Classic period, 650-800 CE. For scale, New York City has about 8.5 million people. Publishing their work in Science, the team notes these populations were unevenly distributed with different levels of urbanization spread out over 2,100 square kilometers (810 square miles).
“Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” explained team member Francisco Estrada-Belli in a statement at the time.
Many a medical wonder occurred in the last year, including a study that allowed two people with paralysis from traumatic injuries with the ability to walk independently years after having lost voluntary muscle control below the site of their spinal cord damage.
Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers detailed how the “epidural stimulation” took place by way of a surgically implanted nerve stimulation device alongside months of training. The treatment is very early on, but the results “demonstrate that the framework of nerve connections necessary for voluntary movement is not completely destroyed by spinal cord trauma.” This suggests that even more successful treatments could be within reach in the future.
This last year saw some of the biggest strides in space science the world has seen (more on that later), including the moment earlier this month when the Voyager 2, which has been journeying through space for the last 41 years, fulfilled its fate to become the second interstellar spacecraft to leave the heliosphere.
"For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars," NASA said in a statement at the time. "NASA’s Voyager 2 probe now has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun."
NASA launched the Voyager 2 on August 20, 1977, just 16 days before sending its twin, the Voyager 1, on a mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 went on to explore the Solar System and became the first spacecraft to explore the ice giants, Uranus and Neptune. Since then, the probing duo has been pointed towards deep space.
Bon voyage, Voyager 2. Until we meet again (in a galaxy far, far away).
Forget about life at the surface – that is so 2017. This year, scientists discovered a vast ecosystem teeming with life beneath the very ground you’re sitting on at this exact moment. Presenting their decade-long work at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, a scientific collaboration revealed how billions of microorganisms live beneath Earth’s subsurface. In calculating the size for the first time, the team reports that an astonishing 70 percent of the total number of the planet’s microbes live underground, representing around 15 to 23 billion tonnes of carbon. This is hundreds of times greater than the carbon mass of all humans living above ground.
We don’t know a lot about the “subterranean Galapagos” – so-named for its plethora of genetic diversity – but it’s safe to assume that the world below is dominated by bacteria and their evolutionary cousins archaea and eukarya (not quite as romantic as giant tortoises).
Scientists discovered so many new species in 2018 that we already put together a round-up of our favorite ones. But in case you missed it, let us fill you in.
In short, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences and a team of international collaborators have discovered 229 new species of plants and animals, including a frog, a snake, a seahorse, two tardigrades, three sharks, four eels, seven spiders, 19 fishes, 28 ants, 34 sea slugs, and an incredible 120 wasps. For flora, we’re looking at seven new flowering plants, one liverwort, and a moss. That’s not including the 150 new species discovered in Southeast Asia, including the Skywalker Hoolock Gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), which does, in fact, resemble Luke Skywalker.
Genetic sequencing deserves the brunt of the credit for this year’s new discoveries. Advanced technologies have allowed scientists to explore different phylogenetic traits in greater detail, thus leading to the breadth of newly discovered species.