Scientific breakthroughs: From bone fragments to Higgs boson, the tiny finds with huge consequences

Winners of this year’s best breakthroughs revealed

A technological tour de force that enabled scientists to unravel the entire genome of a Stone Age girl from a tiny fragment of finger bone has been recognised as one of the science breakthroughs of the year – awarded by Science journal.

The girl, who died more than 74,000 years ago in Siberia, belonged to a long-extinct species of humans known as the Denisovans whose only known remains are a lentil-sized bone fragment from a little finger and two molar teeth. But from these fossilised fragments scientists were able to determine the girl’s complete DNA sequence with extreme precision, and so discover that she belonged to a new lineage of ancient humanity.

It was the first time scientists have described a new species of human based on DNA, rather than anatomical descriptions of skeletal remains. It was made possible by a new technique devised by Matthias Meyer, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, which enabled the researchers to sequence the girl’s genome 31 times over to eliminate the tiniest of errors.

The winner of the 2012 award, predictably, is the discovery of the Higgs subatomic particle.

The discovery of the Higgs boson by particle physicists at the Cern centre in Geneva, after half a century of theorising and experiments, was bound to eclipse almost any other scientific finding.

The judging panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publishers of Science, said that the Higgs was the most important scientific breakthrough of the year because of its central role in the standard model of particle physics, the universal theory that explains how particles and forces interact with one another. “Its observation completes the standard model. The only big question hanging over the advance is whether it marks the beginning of a new age of discovery in particle physics or the last hurrah for a field that has run its course,” says the journal.

But for its sheer technological brilliance, the prize could easily have been shared by the team who managed the multiple DNA sequencing of the entire Denisovan genome, revealing their unique genetic attributes.

“The results confirmed the Denisovans interbred with the ancestors of some living humans; people living in parts of island South-east Asia have inherited about 3 per cent of their DNA from Denisovans,” Science says. “The genome offers a glimpse of the girl, suggesting she had brown eyes, brown hair, and brown skin. It also allowed the team to use DNA to estimate the girl died between 74,000 and 82,000 years ago – the first time researchers had used genomic information to date an archaic human,” it says.

2012 breakthroughs: rest of the best

Making eggs from stem cells

Embryonic stem cells of mice can be coaxed into mature eggs.

Curiosity rover landing system

A sky-crane hovered over Mars to lower its precious space vehicle.

X-ray lasers to unravel protein structure

Images of the sleeping-sickness parasite were revealed.

Precision gene engineering

Specific genes can now be turned on and off like a light switch.

The Encode gene project

This showed the genome is far more complex than first thought.

Brain-machine interface

Paralysed patients controlled mechanical arms with brainpower.

Neutrino mixing angle

Neutrinos “morph” from one state to another at near-light speed.

Majorana fermions

These exotic sub-atomic particles were just a theoretical possibility until the first evidence this year.

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam