Ten Cool Science Stories You May Have Missed in 2014

ICYMI, there’s a newfound coral reef in Iraq, the smallest force has been detected and more in this year’s surprising science

Missed Sci Lead
Arachnophobia, coral reefs, artificial cells and strange amphibians starred in some of this year's science finds you might have missed. Clockwise from top left: Sciepro/Science Photo Library/Corbis; Thomas Pohl; Radboud University; and Stephen Dalton/Minden Pictures/Corbis

So in 2014 we landed a spacecraft on a comet, took video of an elusive deep-sea anglerfish and found out a lot about Richard III. But what were the year's important, unusual or just plain fun scientific finds that may have gotten lost amid the flurry of headlines?

We dug around and found a few discoveries that might surprise you, presented here in no particular order:

First Plastic Cell Made With Working Parts

For something so tiny, a biological cell is a remarkably crowded place. In multi-celled creatures known as eukaryotes, each cell is packed with even smaller structures—organelles—that have specific functions, often related to controlling chemical reactions. To better understand cell chemistry, scientists at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands created the first artificial cell with actual working parts inside. They trapped tiny spheres filled with enzymes inside a water droplet and coated the whole thing with a polymer. The resulting "plastic cell," described in the January issue of Angewandte Chemie, initiated a cascade reaction among the enzymes inside, essentially mimicking the way organelles function.

Living Coral Reef Found in Iraq

A rule of thumb for corals is that they don't like hot, overly cloudy water. That's why nobody expected to find a thriving coral reef complex off the gulf coast of Iraq. Around this swampy river delta, sediment levels are high, the water is often tinged with oil and sea temperatures can get as high as 93 degrees F. "We were entirely surprised to find living coral reef under such harsh conditions," scientists from Germany and Iraq write in their March paper in Scientific Reports. The team notes that the unique find could aid scientists racing to understand the effects of climate change on reef ecosystems—provided the Iraqi reef can be protected from ongoing oil and gas exploration in the gulf.

Mexico May Have Lost Its Water Monster

If you wanted to see a wild axolotl, you may be out of luck. The happy-faced amphibian has long been in a tough spot, because its only native habitat is the muddy network of lakes and canals around Mexico City, which has been threatened by pollution, urban sprawl and competition from invasive species. The animals' numbers had been declining for years, and in January, Mexican researchers told the Guardian newspaper that after four months of searching, they could find no axolotls in the wild. The searches will be repeated before the species is declared extinct in the wild—but from now on, you may not be able to smile back at an axolotl unless you find it in a fish tank or aquarium.

This Asteroid Impact Dwarfed the Dino-Killer

The faint form of the Chicxulub crater on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula is one of the most famous pieces of evidence that a massive impact wiped out non-avian dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. But at 93 miles wide, Chicxulub wouldn't hold a candle to a whopping crater that likely formed on Earth about 3.26 billion years ago, during the Archean Eon. Erosion and plate tectonics have since wiped away any craters from so long ago, but scientists saw other signs of an impact in the Barberton greenstone belt in South Africa. This rock contains beds of small structures called spherules, created when the rock vaporized and then condensed. The bed also shows evidence of strong seismic shaking associated with an impact. Using examples of rock deformations from lunar craters, scientists at Stanford University modeled the size of the impact needed to create these features in the greenstone belt. The data, published in April in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, suggest that the extreme event formed a now-vanished crater that spanned 297 miles.

"Sea Monster" Fossil Captures the Oldest Live Birth

When dinosaurs roamed the Earth, fearsome marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs hunted the seas, thriving between 250 and 90 million years ago. Scientists suspected these animals gave birth to live young, as opposed to laying eggs, and that babies were born in the ocean, like modern dolphins and whales. But a 248-million-year-old fossil found in China blew that theory out of the water. The fossil shows a female ichthyosaur in the process of giving birth, and the baby is coming out head-first, a strategy found today mostly in land animals. Writing in February in PLOS ONE, an international team of scientists notes that the fossil predates other known examples of live birth on land or at sea by 10 million years.

First Baby Born From a Transplanted Womb

Organ transplants can be tricky, in large part because of the possibility that your body will reject the foreign tissue. In October, Mats Brännström and his team of doctors in Sweden, seen above, announced that they had not only successfully transplanted a womb into a 35-year-old woman, but a year later she had given birth to a healthy baby boy. The feat wasn't without a few hiccups, and technically the baby was born prematurely via caesarean section. But the result is a proof of concept that could have important implications for infertile couples, the authors say in their paper in The Lancet.

First Spider Genomes Get Sequenced

Genome sequences are all the rage in biology, as the molecular codes can tell us which properties make a species unique—and how alike all life really is at the genetic level. In May, scientists in Denmark and China released the first genome sequences for spiders: a full one for the African social velvet spider (seen above) and a partial sequence for the Brazilian white-knee tarantula. The results could aid understanding of spider venom, which is being used in drug design, and spider silk, which could yield stronger, more lightweight materials

Fear of Spiders Is Cut Out of a Man's Brain

Not all medical side effects are scary. A man who had brain surgery in Brighton, England, came home to find that he had been unexpectedly cured of his extreme arachnophobia. The patient was suffering from seizures related to a rare condition called sarcoidosis, and his doctors had decided to remove his damaged left amygdala. After the surgery, the man realized that he was fascinated rather than terrified of spiders—he would happily pick up the same tiny creatures he used to try to smash with tennis balls, New Scientist reported in October. The doctors think this might be because the amygdala (seen in red above) is linked to emotions, and cutting out the left section removed the man's panic response.

Smallest Force Yet Is Detected

One of the thorniest problems in physics is how to make the math behind Einstein's theories of relativity work with equations for quantum mechanics. For instance, mathematical descriptions of gravity break down when applied to quantum particles. Cracking this mystery would answer big questions about the nature of the cosmos. While a few unifying theories seem to work elegantly on paper, finding evidence to back them up has been frustratingly hard (looking at you, string theory). One tiny step in the right direction landed in June, when scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, announced that they had been able to measure the tiniest force yet acting on a cloud of ultracold atoms. Measuring such small forces could help physicists detect ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves, predicted by relativity, and to design better tests of how much the force of gravity may act on quantum objects.

3D Virtual Shape Can Be Seen and Felt

It's no night on the Holodeck, but technology unveiled in December can let you see and touch a virtual sphere for the first time. Researchers at the University of Bristol used an ultrasound device to focus disturbances in the air created by sound waves into 3D shapes. The floating shapes are visible to the naked eye and create haptic feedback when you touch them. The work is still in an early phase, but the researchers anticipate that more advanced devices could create touchable CT scans and interactive museum displays.