Top 10 scientific breakthroughs of 2015


The year 2015 has seen a great many scientific breakthroughs, including the first new antibiotic in 30 years and the discovery of a new human ancestor in South Africa, which could change the course of life.

Read on to find more about the most startling discoveries this year:

1. Most powerful resistance-free antibiotic in 30 years

Early this year, an international team of scientists claimed to have created teixobactin, a powerful antibiotic, which works differently from the other available antibiotics. As such, it is highly possible that it is “free of resistance.”

The most powerful antibiotic drug in 30 years will be able to fight microorganisms which cause pneumonia, staph, tuberculosis, and blood infections among others. In its trials on mice, it has cured a variety of bacterial infections, though human trails still await. The drug may be available in the market in the next five years.

2. Blood test to detect cancer

After several years of work in this field, Swedish researchers finally developed a blood test to accurately detect early stages of cancer.

Studies suggest that 96 percent of the time, the test will be able to detect the disease, while the cancer type can also be detected 71 per cent of the time. Doctors can also correctly determine the best treatment course via the test results.

The test, based on the changes which a cancerous tumour causes to RNA in blood platelets, can also indicate the primary location of the tumour.

This procedure will consequently remove the need of acquiring a tissue sample of the affected area to detect cancer.

3. Epigenome mapping

Almost a decade’s worth of research was put together to form a comprehensive and detailed map of the human epigenome by US geneticists in February. While the human genome is stable and consistent in every cell type, epigenomes are chemical instructions governing DNA access.

Doctors are increasingly of the opinion that most malicious diseases are caused by mutations and genetic maladies which usually occur in the epigenomic field.

More than 100 types of human cells were properly mapped to better understand the links between diseases and DNA.

4. Homo naledi: a new human ancestor

A National Geographic funded team of researchers in September, discovered an ancient burial chamber in a South African cave complex. In one of the largest finds of this kind, the chamber contained around 1500 bone fragments belonging to at least 15 different species of a primitive hominin, an ancient human-like species. The fragments came from all age groups—ranging from newborns to old adults.

The Homo naledi had a structure similar to a small-bodies modern human. They possessed fingers, which according to scientists, are the most curved in any hominin species, suggesting advanced manipulation of tools. Without reliable bone-dating, it cannot be ascertained whether the bones are of 3 million years old or younger.

One of the most interesting things about this discovery was the fact that the chamber was so well hidden, with an opening just 7.5 inches wide. Scientists consequently rejected every alternative scenario such as killed by an unknown carnivore or accidental death via a death-trap, and attributed the placing of the bodies as an intentional move in a burial ritual. This characteristic was previously only credited to modern human behavior.

5. Bionic lenses to completely restore eyesight

After eight years of research and $3 million into the project, Ocumentic Technology Corp in May came up with the possibility of providing patients with bionic lenses which can make the human eyesight three times better than 20/20 vision.

This breakthrough, which will make corrective lenses and glasses obsolete, can allegedly be made possible only through an eight-minute surgery. The procedure entails injecting custom-made lenses into the eye via a saline syringe, which then unfolds into place in 10 seconds.

This revolutionary vision enhancement surgery, quite similar to a cataract surgery, would enable one to even see a clock clearly at 30 feet away, when under natural circumstances, one can barely see it at 10 feet.

The bionic lenses could be available in as little as two years after animal and human trials.

6. Brightest galaxy in the universe

The brightest galaxy in the universe till date was discovered by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer—one of the most powerful telescopes possessed by the agency. The galaxy emits infrared light worth 300 trillion suns.

The galaxy, named WISE J224607.57-052635.0, was put in a new class of galaxies known as extremely luminous infrared galaxies, or ELIRGs.

Scientists believe that the incredible luminosity is probably created by a supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center. While the black hole engulfs the surrounding gas, it emits ultraviolet and X-ray light. Dust clouds heat up when they absorb that light and give off the infrared light which gives off the luminosity.

7. Changing malicious leukemia cells into immune cells

Stanford University scientists in March revealed a method that may change harmful leukemia cells into cancer-fighters.

The finding arrived when scientists collected malicious leukemia cells from a patient and attempted to keep them alive “throwing everything at them to help them survive.” Some of the cancer cells seemed to transform into macrophages as a result of proteins which bind to certain DNA sequences. Thus, when this transformation takes place in the cancer cells, they can not only be neutralized, but also be able to engulf cancer cells and pathogens.

Researchers are on the lookout for a drug which can possibly mimic these reactions, and form the basis for the fight against leukemia.

8. Water on Mars

Flowing salty streaks of water which vary with Martian seasons have long made scientists speculate about the presence of seasonal springs on Mars. But in September, NASA claimed to have found chemical evidence with the detection of waterlogged molecules —hydrated salts called perchlorates.

This also shows that Mars water is salty rather than pure, and since salt lowers the freezing point of water, it allows the water to flow even in very low temperatures.

The discovery significantly improves the chances of the presence of living organisms on Mars, and also significantly affects future human exploration.

9. Gene-editing advancements

CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, paved the way for a number of breakthroughs this year.

In a very controversial move Chinese researchers used the technology to genetically modify a non-viable human embryo.

Researchers from Harvard University, on the other hand, took genes from the long-extinct wooly mammoth and inserted them into the living cells of a modern-day elephant.

CRISPR was also reportedly used to modify the organs from a pig and use them for human transplant.

Mosquitoes have also been genetically modified in a bid to eradicate the threat of malaria.

Genetic modifications would very likely become mainstream as human trials for this technology is slated to start in 2017.

10. Discovery of 211 new species

A startling 211 new species, consisting of 133 plants, 39 invertebrates, 26 fish, 10 amphibians, one reptile, one bird, and one mammal, were discovered since 2009, according to a 4-year report by the World Wildlife Foundation, published this year.

All these species were discovered only in the Eartern Himalayas, comprising northeastern India, Bhutan, Nepal, northern Myanmar, and portions of southern Tibet. The area is extremely rich in its ecology and the report is a proof of the biodiversity the world still possesses. Between the time period of 1998 and 2008, this region gave 345 new species to researchers.