Cool Science Stories You May Have Missed in 2015

Quantum spookiness, a Maya city buried in ash and more in this year’s surprising science

Deep Earth creepy crawlies, mushrooms making rain, and a Maya city buried in ash are just a few highlights from this year's collection of science stories. (Clockwise from top left: Gaetan Borgonie/Extreme Life Isyensya, Belgium; Claudio Pia/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis; University of Colorado)
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This year brought us our first closeup look at Pluto, a new and surprising member of the human family tree, a much-needed influx of research into Ebola and a tempest over the ethics of editing the human genome. But what interesting, important or quirky new science flew under the radar in 2015?

Here is a selection of eight scientific advances you may have missed this year, presented in no particular order:

Kill Switches Could Stop Escaping GMOs

(© Yuri Smityuk/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis)

One of the biggest ocean stories of 2015 was the decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve genetically engineered salmon for sale and consumption. Although the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to date agrees that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe to eat, many people are still debating the environmental consequences of introducing GMO crops and livestock into the consumer market. The worry is that an altered creature could get out and breed with its unaltered kin, which could have unforeseen consequences on wild ecosystems.

That’s where “Deadman” and “Passcode” come in. Developed by researchers at Harvard and MIT, these cellular signals were coded into the bacterium Escherichia coli as safeguards against the spread of genetically engineered microbes. If Passcode senses a predetermined change in the surrounding environment, it activates Deadman, which causes the bacterial cells to self-destruct by producing a lethal toxin.

For now, the safeguard only works in bacteria, but the researchers think the same mechanism could be used to design GMO crops that kill themselves if they spread beyond their intended fields. The work appeared in December in Nature Chemical Biology.

About Maya Wei-Haas
Maya Wei-Haas

Maya Wei-Haas is the assistant editor for science and innovation at Smithsonian.com. Her work has appeared on National Geographic and AGU's Eos and Plainspoken Scientist.

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About Victoria Jaggard

Victoria Jaggard is the science editor for Smithsonian.com. Her writing has appeared in Chemical & Engineering News, National Geographic, New Scientist and elsewhere.

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