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Best Bets for 1999

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Science  18 Dec 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5397, pp. 2158
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5397.2158

To find future winners in the research game, Science's editors turned to our crystal ball and saw six fields emerge:

Maturing research.

Genes that extend life in the fruit fly and worm have now confirmed the notion that individual genes can regulate aging. Next up: more genetics, plus a flurry of mechanistic work to try to pinpoint how certain enzymes, hormones, and cellular structures mold the aging process. Also expect a continuing flurry of studies of the now-trendy telomeres—DNA sequences on chromosome ends—whose shortening over time may contribute to cellular aging. Top priority: to test these ideas in human cells.

Reading:

L. Yi-Jyun, L. Seroude, and S. Benzer, “Extended Life-Span and Stress Resistance in the Drosophila Mutant methuselah,” Science 282, 943 (30 October 1998).

A. G. Bodnar et al., “Extension of Life-Span by Introduction of Telomerase into Normal Human Cells,” Science 279, 349 (16 January 1998).

T. de Lange, “Telomeres and Senescence: Ending the Debate,” Science 279, 334 (16 January 1998).

L. Guarente, G. Ruvkun, and R. Amasino, “Aging, life span, and senescence,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95, 11034 (1998).

Bioterror troubles. The superpowers halted aggressive biowarfare R&D 30 years ago, but a new threat is emerging, as smaller nations such as Iraq and even cults like the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan seek to exploit the deadly power of nature's toxins. In response, a worried U.S. Congress this year approved $150 million for civilian bioterrorism defense, funding medical supplies, disease surveillance, and new vaccine research.

Link:

Bioterror site

Crystal power. New Agers claiming that crystals channel vibes have it almost right. Specially tailored photonic crystals have latticelike structures that can transmit certain wavelengths of light while excluding others. This year researchers created the first optical fibers based on such crystals, which promise to carry light pulses farther without losing the signal. Look for a new world of crystal applications in areas from advanced sensors to telecommunications equipment.

Reading:

J. C. Knight et al., “Photonic Band Gap Guidance in Optical Fibers,” Science 282, 1476 (20 November 1998). See also Knight et al. Web site

Sink search. One burning question in climate research concerns the so-called “missing sink”: Terrestrial plants seem to be sopping up carbon dioxide—staving off some greenhouse warming—but no one knows just where this sponge is or whether it's forests, croplands, or both. A controversial modeling study this year pointed to North America, but more debate is sure to come in 1999, as other modelers compare their results and new data come in from a worldwide network of towers measuring CO2 flowing in and out of forests.

Links:

Woods Hole Research Center page on the missing carbon sink

Carbon Dioxide Tower Network's Web site

United Nations site for the Convention on Climate Change, with emissions and sinks data for countries

Reading:

IGBP Terrestrial Carbon Working Group, “The Terrestrial Carbon Cycle: Implications for the Kyoto Protocol,” Science 280, 1393 (29 May 1998).

S. Fan et al., “A Large Terrestrial Carbon Sink in North America Implied by Atmospheric and Oceanic Carbon Dioxide Data and Models,” Science 282, 442 (1998).

J. Kaiser, “Possibly Vast Greenhouse Gas Sponge Ignites Controversy,” Science 282, 386 (1998).

Take a deep breath. Allergies and asthma made headlines in 1998, as some U.S. schools and airlines banned peanuts to accommodate allergy sufferers and asthma cases rose to an estimated 155 million worldwide. But peanut butter could make a comeback if advances in understanding the dozens of molecules involved in allergic responses pay off. Trials for DNA vaccines and antibodies that block key steps in runaway immune reactions are set to begin in 1999, and nearly 200 different asthma treatments are in development or clinical trials. Expect some relief for sneezing and wheezing in 1999.

Links:

Lung information from NHLBI

NIAID home page

Global Initiative for Asthma home page

JAMA Asthma Information Center

European Federation of Asthma and Allergy Associations

Reading:

ISAAC Steering Committee, “Worldwide variation in prevalence of symptoms of asthma, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis and atopic eczema: ISAAC,” The Lancet 351, 1225 (25 April 1998).

Once and future climate. A growing torrent of data is revealing why climate has varied, often abruptly, over the millennia. As researchers tie together climate records from oceans, lakes, and glacial ice, they are discovering the global nature of climatic jitters that can drive the planet halfway to an ice age in a decade—and that might pop up in a greenhouse world. As records are linked from pole to pole, expect the research flurry to move from the North Atlantic, where swings are strongest, to the tropics, where the trigger for millennial change may lie.

Link:

Meeting on Mechanisms of Millennial-Scale Global Climate change, 14-18 June 1998.

Reading:

R. Kerr, “Warming's Unpleasant Surprise: Shivering in the Greenhouse?” Science 281, 156 (10 July 1998).

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