Hidden Gems of 2012

If you ask journalists about how they choose the stories they cover, many will talk about importance. Fuelled by some nebulous “news sense”, they try to pick discoveries that are going to save lives, break records, or rock our understanding of the world. But on this blog, my only criterion is whether something interests me. It’s “newsworthy” if it grabs my attention.

So, with that in mind, here’s a list of some of my favourite stories from the year. I’ve culled anything that has appeared in other big “top stories” lists (including Scientific American, Nature, Science, Wired, the BBC, the Guardian, and, yes, National Geographic).

There’s no Higgs, no Baumgartner, no Curiosity, Rothamsted or l’Aquila. I’ve also left out some topics that I’ve covered, including ENCODE, H5N1, XNAs, and psychology’s tribulations. What’s left is a list of unexpected finds, underplayed progress, and elegant experiments. All are posts that I loved writing. I hope they’re also fun to read.

1) Bacteria unite to form living electric cables

“Christian Pfeffer has discovered that the electric mud is teeming with a new type of bacteria, which align themselves into living electrical cables. Each cell is just a millionth of a metre long, but together, they can stretch for centimetres. They even look a bit like the cables in our electronics—long and thin, with an internal bundle of conducting fibres surrounded by an insulating sheath.”

2) Infection Inception: DNA in virus in virus in amoeba in eye

“The poor red eyes of the French patient were carrying an entire world of parasites, nested within one another like Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. The transpovirons were hidden in the virophage, which infected the giant virus, which infected the amoeba, which infected the woman’s eyes.“

3) 12-year-old uses Dungeons and Dragons to help scientist dad

“Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, had a problem: all humans have their eyes in the middle of their faces, and there’s nothing that Kingstone could do about it. His 12-year-old son, Julian Levy, had the solution: monsters. While some monsters are basically humanoid in shape, others have eyes on their hands, tails, tentacles and other unnatural body parts. Perfect. Kingstone would use monsters. And Julian would get his first publication in a journal from the Royal Society, one of the world’s most august scientific institutions.”

4) Killer plant inspires slippery surface that thwarts microbes

“Since killing biofilms (bacterial cities) is a Sisyphean task, some scientists are trying to prevent them from forming at all. They’ve tried textured surfaces, chemical coats, and antibiotic-releasing layers. But Joanna Aizenberg has developed a new solution that goes well beyond what the competitors can do. Inspired by the flesh-eating pitcher plant, she created a material so slippery that biofilms simply cannot form upon it.”

5) New organ helps whales coordinate world’s biggest mouthfuls

“The world’s largest animals have been hiding something. The bodies of the giant rorqual whales—including the blue, fin and humpback—have been regularly displayed in museums, filmed by documentary makers, and harpooned by hunters. Despite this attention, no one noticed the volleyball-sized sense organ at the tips of their lower jaws. Nicholas Pyenson from the Smithsonian Institution is the first, and he thinks that the whales use this structure to coordinate the planet’s biggest mouthfuls.”

6) Yutyrannus, a giant tyrannosaur with feathers

“Meet the largest feathered animal in history – an early version of Tyrannosaurus rex, clad in long, fuzzy filaments. This newly discovered beast has been named Yutyrannus huali, a mix of Mandarin and Latin that means “beautiful feathered tyrant”. And its existence re-opens a debate about whether the iconic T.rex might have been covered in feathers.”

7) Scientists transform scar tissue into beating heart muscle

“In an act of transformation worthy of any magician, scientists have converted scar tissue in the hearts of living mice into beating heart cells… Best of all, the technique worked even better in the animals than in isolated cells. No transplants. No surgeries. No stem cells. Just add three genes, and watch sick hearts turn into healthier ones.”

8 ) World within a tumour –study shows how complex cancer can be

“Now, we know that even a single tumour can be a hotbed of diversity. Charles Swanton from Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute discovered this extra layer of complexity by studying four kidney cancers at an unprecedented level of detail. He showed that the cells from one end of the tumour can have very different genetic mutations to the cells at the other end. These are not trivial differences. These mutations can indicate a patient’s prognosis, and they can affect which drugs a doctor decides to administer.  The bottom line is that a tumour is not a single entity. It’s an entire world.”

9) Dissolving electronics make disintegrating medical sensors

“Rogers has now created a line of “transient electronics”, which last for a specified amount of time before completely dissolving away.  Having made his name by taking rigid and brittle electronics and making them flexible and bendy, he has now flipped durability on its head too. Electronics are typically engineered to last as long as possible, but Rogers wants to create machines that will disintegrate after a given time. And his team have already shown how this disappearing tech could be used to make medical implants that are absorbed by the body after their work is done.

10) Breaking habits with a flash of light

“Habits, by their very nature, seem permanent, stable, automatic. But they are not. [An experiment at MIT] shows that even though habits seem automatic, they still depend on ongoing supervision from the ILC and possibly other parts of the brain. They’re ingrained and durable, but subject to second-by-second control. And they can be disrupted in surprisingly quick and simple ways.”

11) Water striders evolved to literally grab female eyes

“The worst sex you have ever had pales in comparison to what female water striders have to put up with. Put it this way: you have never been held down by your eyes. As the female skates over the surface of ponds and lakes, males will try to force themselves upon her. She resists by struggling vigorously. But in some species, males can avoid being thrown off with antennae that have evolved into antler-shaped restraints. They bend in on themselves and are loaded with an array of prongs and spikes that perfectly fit to the shape of a female’s head.”

12) Why the genome project missed a gene that shaped our brains

“The Human Genome Project was officially completed in 2003, but our version of the genome is far from truly complete. Scientists are still finishing the last parts, correcting errors in the official sequence, and discovering new genes. These new genes did not go unnoticed because they are useless or insignificant. Some of them may be key players in our evolutionary story.”

13) A 61-million-person voting experiment on Facebook

“On November 2nd, 2010, more than 61 million adults visited Facebook’s website, and every single one of them unwittingly took part in a massive experiment. It was a randomised controlled trial, of the sort used to conclusively test the worth of new medicines. But rather than drugs or vaccines, this trial looked at the effectiveness of political messages, and the influence of our friends, in swaying our actions. And unlike most medical trials, this one had a sample size in the millions.”

14) Giant squids’ huge eyes see the light of charging whales

“Why does the giant squid have a champion eye that’s at least twice the size of the runner-up? Dan-Eric Nilsson and Eric Warrant from Lund University, Sweden, think that the squid must have evolved its eye to cope with some unique challenge that other animals don’t face. They suggest that the world’s biggest eyes evolved to spot one of the world’s biggest predators – the sperm whale.”

15) This post is written in a font made of DNA

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