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From intergalactic neutrinos and invisible brains, to the creation of miniature human "organoids," 2013 was an remarkable year for scientific discovery. Here are 17 of the biggest scientific breakthroughs, innovations and advances of 2013.
Bacteria have their own version of an adaptive immune system; but "CRISPR," as the system is known, does not target protein antigens they way your immune system does. Instead, CRISPR works by targeting and eliminating specific DNA sequences with matching strands of RNA. What's more, the system is easily manipulated – since researchers first reported harnessing the system in January,writes Elizabeth Pennisi in a perspective piece for Science, "various groups have used it to delete, add, activate or suppress targeted genes in human cells, mice, rats, zebrafish, bacteria, fruit flies, yeast, nematodes and crops, demonstrating broad utility for the technique." For scientists in search of new tools, few qualities are more important than versatility and ease of use. CRISPR has both – and, some say, the potential to revolutionize the field of molecular biology.
By drilling a 1.5 mile hole deep into an Antarctic glacier, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory this year captured 28 neutrinos, those mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particles that can pass straight through solid matter. And here's the real kicker: the particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy. "This is a landmark discovery," said Alexander Kusenko, a UCLA astroparticle physicist who was not involved in the investigation, "possibly a Nobel Prize in the making."
400,000-Year-Old DNA Muddles Humanity's Origin Story
DNA recovered from a 400,000-year-old thigh bone has complicated our view of human evolution. The oldest-known human DNA discovered to date, the genetic material preserved within the bone – which anatomists first identified as Neanderthal-like – is thought to belong not to a forerunner to Neanderthals, but that of a little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans. The discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. "It is possible," writes Carl Zimmer, in his coverage of the discovery for the New York Times, "that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. They might have interbred, swapping DNA." [Image Credit: Javier Trueba, Madrid Scientific Films]
Dawn of the Mini-Organ
Lab-grown organs-in-miniature are providing scientists with new ways to study therapies and diseases as they play out in human tissues. The so called "organoids" are generated by coaxing pluripotent stem cells into a variety of specialized tissues, giving rise to "liver buds," "mini-kidneys," and itty-bitty human brains like the one pictured above, which grow no bigger than an apple seed.
A Long-lost Continent is Discovered Beneath the Indian Ocean
For ages, Mauritia has been hiding. The small, precambrian continent once resided between Madagascar and India, before splitting off and disappearing beneath the ocean waves in a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth's surface.After millions of years, and some incredible geologic sleuthing, it seems Mauritia has been found, as researchers reported in Nature Geoscience back in February.
Giant "Pandoravirus" Could Redefine Life as we Know it