Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor

Genetics isn't just for the living, as the past year's scientific revelations have demonstrated. Whether it's identifying King Richard III's long-lost bones or tracing humanity's tangled family tree, DNA analysis is shedding new light on mysteries that have lain buried for ages.

New technologies addressed longstanding questions in other contexts during 2013. Here are five of the year's leading themes, plus five bonus scientific highlights and links to five additional end-of-the-year roundups.

DNA unravels history's mysteries: In February, genetics clinched the case for King Richard III's remains, which British archaeologists recovered from beneath a parking lot in Leicester. Richard III was famous as one of Shakespeare's best-known villains, but the chroniclers lost track of his bones soon after his defeat and death on Bosworth Field in 1485. Analyses of his rediscovered remains proved the truth of what Shakespeare said with regard to a different English king: "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." Forensic analysis found that the poor royal suffered from scoliosis, roundworms and other ailments. And Richard's troubles aren't over yet: Interested parties in Leicester and York are still fighting over who has rightful custody of his bones. On other fronts, genetics is being applied to the mysteries surrounding the fates of French King Henry IV and England's Alfred the Great.

DNA points to complexity in human origins: This month, scientists announced that they deciphered 400,000-year-old DNA extracted from bones found in a Spanish cave. That technical achievement set a record, but it also turned up something unexpected: genetic linkages to a mysterious population of human ancestors in Siberia, known as Denisovans. Other studies have pointed to interbreeding among Neanderthals, Denisovans and ancient representatives of our own species, Homo sapiens. DNA signatures even hint at humanlike populations yet to be identified. Such findings support the view that our family tree isn't organized into clear-cut roots and branches, but instead consists of bushy, messy tangles.

Lost cities uncovered: Laser scanning, aerial imaging and other high-tech tools have revealed a previously uncharted ancient settlement in Cambodia that predated Angkor Wat, ruins in Peru that predated the Inca culture, and structures in Honduras that might have inspired conquistadors' tales of a treasure-laden city. The methods available to archaeologists today would make Indiana Jones green with envy. "I go out and do archaeology with a ray gun," the University of Sheffield's Ellery Frahm told LiveScience. "It doesn't get more sci-fi than that."

Discoveries from Antarctica's depths: Antarctica may seem like a frozen wasteland, but it can be a wonderland for the right kinds of research. In January, Russian scientists brought up fresh samples of ice from Lake Vostok, a body of water that lies hidden beneath a 2-mile-deep layer of ice. In July, they reported that the ice contained samples from a wide assortment of life forms, even though the lake has seemingly been cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years. Meanwhile, detectors buried in Antarctica's ice were used to make a completely different kind of discovery: the first signs of high-energy neutrinos from beyond our solar system. Those detectors, part of the international IceCube experiment, could point the way to an entirely new kind of astronomy, based on neutrinos instead of old-fashioned photons. 

Clarity about climate change: Atmospheric readings of carbon dioxide exceeded 400 parts per million this year, raising fresh warnings about the greenhouse-gas effect. Climate-change skeptics tried to make the case that global warming has stalled, based on temperature readings from recent years, but researchers came up with a different explanation: Right now, much of the planet's excess heat is being soaked up by the ocean rather than the atmosphere. Such findings were factored into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report, which suggested establishing a cumulative cap on carbon emissions.

Five more highlights: Scientists confirmed the existence of Element 115, a.k.a. Ununpentium. ... A long-horned dinosaur dubbed Nasutoceratops was one of the year's paleontological stars. ... Evidence mounted that fracking can cause earthquakes. ... The Obama administration launched a multi-agency initiative to study the brain. ... And in London, taste testers chowed down on a $330,000 lab-grown hamburger that was bankrolled by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Five more science roundups:

What have we missed? Feel free to add to the list in the comment section and check out our "Year in Space" roundup for the most cosmic stories of 2013.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.