From Distant Galaxies to Parasitic Jellyfish: The Most Exciting Science Stories From Israel in 2015

Science isn't just about helping us live longer, making better dog food or reducing our carbon footprint. Sometimes it's about marveling at the world around us.

Ruth Schuster
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The most exciting science stories from Israel in 2015
The most exciting science stories from Israel in 2015Credit: Yael Bogen
Ruth Schuster

We are not alone

The most important science story of 2015 is one that puts all mankind, not just Israelis, into new proportion. Among the high points of the year was the discovery that until very recently, Homo sapiens wasn't the only human species running around the Earth.  Among the low points is the question that slithers to mind when observing the burnt thighbone of another human species found in China, dated to just 14,000 years ago – um, did somebody cook and eat him?  We don't know. Whether they did or not, that brings the number of human species still existing in the late Ice Age to three: us, this new guy Red Deer Cave Man, and the diminutive so-called "hobbit"  of Flores Island, Indonesia, which seems to have finally died out some 12,000 years ago.

A drawing impression of a Red Deer Cave man, who may have existed up to 10,500 years ago.
A drawing impression of a Red Deer Cave man, who may have existed up to 10,500 years ago. Credit: Darren Curnoe and Ji Xueping

Microscopic parasitic jellyfish. 'Nuff said

We do know it was a terrific shock to the scientists at Tel Aviv University to discover that mysterious one-celled parasites afflicting fish farms are actually an extremely degenerate form of parasitic jellyfish. And here we had thought the tiny, deadly box jellyfish took the cake for being the most obnoxious form of invertebrate in the sea. Genetic analysis of these microscopic myxozoans was so astonishing that the TAU zoologists suggest the whole concept of what an "animal" is might need reweighting.

A picture of myxozoans seen through the microscope on a purple background. Each animal is a single cell. The four-leaf clover-shaped form on each one is believed to be the 'suckers', adapted sting mechanisms, which the myxozoans use to adhere to their hosts - usually worms.
Myxozoans seen through the microscope. Each animal is a single cell. The four-leaf clover-shaped form on each is believed to be 'suckers' hich the myxozoans use to adhere to their hosts.Credit: Arik Diamant

Star light, star bright, star crash

Speaking of mysteries, a big one was why the planet Earth has practically no plutonium-244, which is weird if one considers that it does exist in nature, albeit rarely, and that the early solar system had plenty of it. That presumably includes our dear home planet.  Okay, being a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 80 million years, whatever plutonium-244 existed on the early planet long since decayed. But we have (almost) none now no more has arrived since the Earth's formation so where did that initial plutonium come from? As the year 2015 neared its end, luminaries at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem figured it out, and now you can read their answer here.

Would Mother Teresa have made one too?

Another major Israeli scientific discovery in 2015 is that Israelis can be so annoying that even a bonobo will lose it. The famously amiable apes proved capable of not only incredibly complex planning – which they hadn't demonstrated before, apparently because they didn't need to – but of fashioning weapons, and using them too. To find out exactly who irritated a bonobo to the point of using her teeth to craft a branch into a spear that she then tried to stab him with, read here.

A bonobo shows how stone tools are made. Could you do better?Credit: Elizabeth Rubert-Pugh

The economics of bar-keeping

Bad news for bar owners: Students who eat a lot of salty peanuts do not necessarily get thirstier, announced Prof. Micah Leshem of Haifa University. Oy vey, all those years of putting free peanuts on the bar to encourage people to buy beer were wasted. After stuffing yourself with junk foods, you may want a drink because of the dry mouth-feel after eating salt, not because your body physiologically aspires to correct its hydromineral balance, Leshem explained to Haaretz. And what about sugared nuts? Read here to find out.

Prof. Micah Leshem wondered, why exactly do people love salt so much?Credit: Micah Leshem

Oldest galaxy in universe found

Meanwhile, in headier realms of existence, a team headed by an Israeli scientist at CalTech, Adi Zitrin, says it found the oldest galaxies currently known. At more than 13.2 billion years old, the charmingly-named EGS8p7 was created a mere 600 million years after the Big Bang, the scientists says. To find out how, and mainly why, they discovered this, read here.

It's a boy, it's a girl, it's a sustainable liver cell in vitro

Closer to home, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem had a baby and a eureka moment. What caused the baby's liver to kick in and start functioning at birth? What? Elucidating that led Yaakov Nahmias to discover how to sustainably grow liver cells that actually function in the lab, a feat of vast importance to anybody who ever took a pill in their life, or who cares about lab rats.

Liver on a chip: Purple thing in left corner is the micro-liver, which sits on the chip in the middle of the shown device.Credit: Yaakov Nahmias

Six-million dollar man, you are so last-millennium

Moving on: Realizing how to grow liver cells on a chip led the good professor Nahmias to invent the bionic microliver-on-a-chip, which is not some form of molecular culinary inspiration, it is an invention to test drugs more efficiently and effectively without killing whole generations of animals in the process.

Is your mouse getting enough sleep? Is it??

Mice with a circadian cycle of exactly 24 hours live longer and healthier lives, discovered scientists at the Tel Hai Academic College, which is perhaps the least immediately helpful bit of science news to come out of that distinguished academy this year. The unfortunate murines were genetically engineered to have a circadian cycle of exactly 24 hours, whereas the cycle in normal mice, you, and most animals and plants is slightly longer than 24 hours. So, the engineered mice lived longer (and ate less). Big whoop. What are you going to do, bioengineer your circadian cycle?

A woman looks at a colorful MRI image of a brain on a large wall-sized screen.
A brain. Does it come from a man or a woman? Doesn't matter.Credit: AFP

Men are from Earth, and so are women

Finally, in a stunner released just in time for Christmas, Israeli scientists announced that – in contrast to, say, our genitalia – there is "no such thing" as a male or female brain. After studying thousands of brains using MRI machines, the Tel Aviv University team concluded that nobody fits the stereotypes. There is only one type of brain that combines male and female characteristics, which does not mean, by the way, that gender is a fiction. It isn't. Just ask your parents what they think of that.