The Biggest Science Breakthroughs of the Year
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The Biggest Science Breakthroughs of the Year

REUTERS/ NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout

The editors of the journal Science have chosen the possible discovery of the elusive Higgs boson as the biggest breakthrough of 2012.

The subatomic particle, named 50 years ago by physicist Peter Higgs, is what scientists believe gives mass to matter. The discovery is monumental because it confirms that the universe works the way that theoretical physicists think it does. 

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Nine other groundbreaking achievements from 2012 were given honorable mention, including the safe landing of the Mars rover Curiosity this summer, and definitive proof that paralyzed patients could use their mind to move a robotic arm.

Here are the earth-shattering events of the year:   

1. NASA's Mars Curiosity rover lands on Mars.
A special "sky crane" landing system placed NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars on Aug. 5. The complicated landing maneuver was famously dubbed the "seven minutes of terror" by NASA engineers because that's how long it took Curiosity to get from the top of the Martian atmosphere down to the surface of the Red Planet. The mission control team had no contact with the one-ton robot during those critical minutes. 

Curiosity survived the landing with 100 percent working parts, and is going strong five months into her two-year mission on Mars, sending back new photos and crucial data for future space travel each day. 

2. Scientists created eggs from mice stem cells for the first time.
Japanese researchers showed that embryonic stem cells from mice could be made into viable egg cells, that could be fertilized and result in healthy babies. The healthy mouse pups shown here were bred from the eggs they created. The experiment only involved mice, but may one day be used to treat infertility in humans. 

3. Scientists discovered the structure of a protein involved in the transmission of African sleeping sickness.
Membrane proteins span the outer shell of each and every cell in our bodies, sending signals and shuttling stuff between the inside of the cell and the outside. These proteins play a role in almost everything the cells do, and their involvement is critical in the transmission of diseases and disease-fighting drugs, so understanding their structure is important for developing new drugs to target the disease.

Researchers used an X-ray laser a billion times brighter than traditional X-ray sources to provide a detailed structure of one of these membrane proteins, which plays an important role in the transmission of the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness, a disease that kills around 30,000 people each year.

4. Subatomic particles known as neutrinos are caught changing from one type to another.
Some nuclear reactions, including those that take place inside the sun, create neutrinos. Neutrinos and their corresponding antineutrinos come in three basic “flavors": electron, muon and tau. 

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Measurements from the Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment in China revealed how electron antineutrinos transform into different flavors — either muon or tau — as they travel at the near-speed of light. The results could help explain why the universe contains so much more matter than antimatter.

5. Researchers sequenced the genome of the Denisovians, a group of ancient humans that lived 41,000 years ago in Siberia.
Along with the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, researchers also sequenced the genome of the group of ancient humans named the Denisovians, who lived 41,000 years ago in Siberia.  They isolated DNA from a bone fragment, a finger bone that belonged to a girl with brown eyes, brown hair and brown skin who died in Siberia between 74,000 and 82,000 years ago.

By comparing the genetic sequences of these ancient hominins to modern humans and our primate relatives, researchers learn more about how these ancient species lived, acted, and evolved. The DNA even informed us that humans possibly interbred with both of these species, since we can find some of their DNA in the genome of some modern humans.

6. Physicists detect particles, known as Majorana fermions, that act as their own antiparticle.
An antiparticle is a subatomic particle that has the same mass as a given particle, but opposite electric or magnetic charge.

A group of physicists from the Netherlands provided the first evidence that the Majorana Fermion, a particle that has the unique property of being its own antiparticle, exists. Scientists think "quantum bits" made of these mysterious particles could be more efficient at storing and processing data than the bits currently used in digital computers.

7. The ENCODE project revealed a ton of data to help us understand our genomes better.
The results of a gigantic biology project — called ENCODE — were released in early September. The project covered ten years of effort by over 400 scientists and has culminated in 30 scientific papers published today.

The data from the project is still being analyzed, but it will help us understand our own genomes, not just based on the sequence of letters in the DNA code, but how this DNA interacts with proteins and other strands of DNA and RNA. These interactions happen in the non-coding regions of the genome, which are kind of like the "dark matter" of our genome — they don't get turned into proteins (only about 1.5 percent of your DNA does), so researchers were unsure what roles they played. They think they've found the functions of about 80 percent of these non-coding regions with the ENCODE survey.

8. A new tool helps researchers manipulate our genes.
In 2012 researchers created a remarkable protein that they can use to change a cell's genes on the fly. Known as TALENs, which stands for "transcription activator-like effector nucleases," gave researchers the ability to alter or inactivate specific genes in zebrafish, toads, livestock and other animals — even cells from patients with disease.

These TALENs can be customized to seek out and edit any DNA sequence, so it's very specific. It can be used to chop out a bad gene and replace it for a treatment, or can be used in research to understand what specific DNA stretches do in healthy and diseased individuals.

9. Paralyzed patients use their mind to move a robotic arm.
A sensor implanted in the brain's cortex and used to monitor brain signals was able to control a robotic arm. The prosthetic limb shown below responded when the user simply thought about moving his arm or hand.

10. The discovery of the Higgs boson confirms mainstream physics theories.
On July 4, scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva announced with near certainty that they had found a Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is a big deal because it provides proof of an invisible field that gives mass to matter. The theory "explains how particles interact via electromagnetic forces, weak nuclear forces and strong nuclear forces in order to make up matter in the universe," writes Science.

By Dina Spector and Jennifer Welsh, Business Insider

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