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Top 5 Science Stories of 2015: From Pluto to the Deep, Blue Sea

A spacecraft flyby gave us dazzling new photos of Pluto.

It was a year of big scientific achievements, with New Horizon's flyby of Pluto and the discovery of what may be a new species of early human topping the list. The historic climate agreement reached in Paris might be called a victory for science, though many consider it a victory of diplomacy. 
1. Dwarf planet a breakout success. It may have lost its planetary standing, but the photographs of Pluto and its moons sent back from New Horizons in July dazzled the world. There's some new terrain, as well as old; mountains of water ice; frozen nitrogen and methane. Regina Jorgenson, the incoming director of astronomy for the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket, says astronomers never expected Pluto to be so interesting. 

"The most amazing part of it is we always expected Pluto to be this sort of icy, cold, dead world with not much happening -- a very heavily cratered surface indicating its very old age, and nothing new and exciting happening on it," Jorgenson says. "So for the first time seeing these images that are so sharp and contain so much detail has really opened up our eyes."

2. Expanded possibilities for life in the universe. Water - thought to be essential to life - showed up in some unexpected places this year. The Mars Orbiter spotted evidence of flowing water on Mars as scientists watched hydrated salt minerals in streaks appear to lengthen and shrink with the seasons. Two planets away, new data from the Cassini spacecraft show there’s an ocean under the entire frozen surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, not just the smaller sea experts had expected. Last, but not least, a review this year of data from the Kepler mission identified three exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) that are likely the best candidates for being able to support life.

3. Filling holes in the tree of life. Microbes discovered in Arctic mud have shed light on the origins of the complex, eukaryotic cells that make up all plants, animals, and fungi. ‘Lokiarchaeota’ cells look like microbes known as archaea, but contain many genes similar to eukaryotes - a mixture of features that suggests a previously missing link between simple microbes and multi-cellular life,.

Meanwhile, fifteen partial skeletons found deep in a South African cave appear to belong to a new human-like species that scientists are calling Homo naledi. Homo naledi also sports a mixture of traits - an ape-like pelvis and shoulders, but feet and hands resembling those of Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago - lending weight to the somewhat controversial idea that there may have been multiple lineages of early hominids, and Homo naledi may have been a hybrid.

4. Editing our own genes a real possibility. A new gene editing technology, called CRISPR, has turned what had been identified as a rudimentary immune system in bacteria into one of the most powerful tools in molecular biology. The technology is revolutionizing biomedical research and the biotech sector, but it’s also making waves because of the ethical questions it raises. Just how much - and what kind - of tinkering with the human genome is acceptable? Hunt Willard, president and director of MBL, says everyone in the field is paying close attention.

"There are watchful eyes," he says. "I think it’s been done in a highly responsible manner thus far at least for the cases we know about where it’s being done. But I think this is a story to keep watching over the next year or two because it’s going to move much more quickly than similar stories from a decade ago or several decades ago."

5. Humanity takes first step toward changing climate for the better. The steady drumbeat of climate change research got extra attention this year because of the historic climate agreement that came out of Paris this month. While Chris Mooney has speculated that the deal could spell the end of climate change denial, most analysts say that the Paris agreement is merely a first step toward meaningful action to limit dangerous climate change.

For the first time in 20 years of negotiations, the word "ocean" made it into the preamble of the agreement. That's a good thing, according to experts like Phil Duffy, president and executive director of Woods Hole Research Center, who points out that the ocean is where most of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases ends up.

"About one percent of the excess energy goes into the atmosphere. Over 90 percent goes into the ocean," says Duffy, explaining why looking at air temperatures doesn't tell the most important part of the story.  "If you want to look for global warming, you shouldn’t really look in the atmosphere because the atmosphere is the tail, and the ocean is the dog."

Recent research has shown that ocean warming could go a long way to settling controversy over a decade-long slowdown in atmospheric warming, but a new study this year argued that the noted pause in warming is largely an artifact of bad data. That particular finding remains controversial.

"It points back to the need for long-term, high-quality observations," says Mark Abbott, president and director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "It's just going to be essential to understand how our planet works."

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