SYDNEY: From stem cells and protons to Neanderthals and the Moon. Here are the top 10 science stories of 2010, as chosen by the editors at COSMOS.
Scientists found a way to turn adult skin cells directly into nerve cells. This means regenerative medicine is still a possibility without the need for embryonic stem cells.
Vaccination rates are dropping in Australia and around the world. It’s a scary thought, but it’s made worse by the fact that many anti-vaccination groups use poor science as their evidence. The Lancet should have retracted the paper much earlier, but it’s better late than never.
In July, scientists lobbed a bombshell into the world of sub-atomic theory by reporting that a primary building block of the visible universe, the proton, is smaller than previously thought. The revised measurements shave 4% off the particle’s radius.
Controlled nuclear fusion has long been imagined as a limitless, carbon-free and radioactive-waste source, it could lead to the development, by around 2035, of huge electric generators powered by fusion. Replicating the scorching temperatures and intense pressures of this process in a controlled, measurable way was one of the biggest obstacles to replicating fusion. In January, a team at the U.S. National Ignition Facility in California proved it is possible.
Oh, wait, no it didn’t.
In a hyped-up press release at the start of December, NASA announced they’d discovered something “that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” … and sent the blogosphere into a tail-chasing frenzy. Suggestions included microbes on the Red Planet, photosynthesis on Titan, or perhaps even bacteria on an asteroid.
It was none of that – but NASA had discovered a bacteria that could eat arsenic and even go so far as to incorporate some of it into its DNA.
5. THE MOON IS LITERALLY COVERED IN WATER
In September 2009, scientists overturned the long accepted view that lunar soil is dry. They had found, bound up in minerals, great quantities of water on the surface of the Moon. In March 2010, researchers discovered ice on the North Pole, though researchers were not sure how much. Estimates kept growing, until researchers could determine how thick the ice sheets – and it looks like it could tally in the billions of tonnes of water – in ice sheets and bound up in minerals.
To think just a year ago the Moon was supposedly dry. The discovery improves the prospects of future colonisation on or trips to the Moon.
A 10-year-long project of what lives in our oceans involved more than 2,700 scientists, 670 institutions, more than 540 expeditions and around 9,000 days at sea. Nearly 30 million observations of 120,000 species were made.
In October, the researchers involved announced all their results, which included the fact that 90% of marine life is microbial – with the equivalent of 35 elephants for every living person – and that around 40% of plankton, at the bottom of the ocean food chain, has disappeared in the last 30 years
Using small amounts of bone powder from three 40,000-year-old Neanderthal individuals found in a cave in Croatia, researchers built 60% of the Neanderthal genome, enough to announce in May that the genome is complete.
The genome revealed that as humans migrated out of Africa 100,000 to 50,000 years ago, some individuals interbred with Neanderthals – a short, stocky hominid species that became extinct around 30,000 years ago. As a result, some genetic sequences can be found in all non-African humans
About the size of a car, the Japanese probe Hayabusa blasted off in 2003 with the asteroid Itokawa in sight. It was an epic trip, marked by several failures. At one stage the probe lost contact with Earth for seven weeks, a glitch that added three years to its space voyage.
It made a pinpoint landing in 2005 on the potato-shaped, revolving asteroid, but an attempt to fire a pellet to whirl up dust failed, casting doubt on whether the probe had collected any extraterrestrial material.
The Hayabusa probe returned to Earth this year, in a spectacular light show over the Australian outback. In November, they announced that they had 1,500 particles, most of which were from the asteroid.
In May, Craig Venter announced in the journal Science that had created synthetic life. He worked with just a single cell, the world’s smallest known simple organism, inserting a synthetic genome. The bacteria created the proteins from the blueprint in the genome, going about its daily life as a normal bacterial cell would.
What he’s done is give birth to a whole range of new industrial processes – there will soon be cheaper, more efficient ways to produce everything from vaccines and pharmaceutical products to better biofuel. In fact, in a joint venture with ExxonMobil, Venter opened a test facility in July 2010 to grow algae to be used a biofuel.