Areas to Watch in 2006

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Science  23 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5756, pp. 1885
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5756.1885

Avian flu. Whether or not a pandemic kicks off in 2006, research on flu vaccines and drugs will expand—as will debates on who should get them first should a pandemic occur. Also look for a wealth of data on the molecular biology, evolution, epidemiology, and even the history of influenza. And keep your fingers crossed.

See Web links on areas to watch

Gravity rules. After years of refinements, the first phase of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has reached its promised sensitivity. LIGO's laser chambers in Louisiana and Washington state will monitor the sky during most of 2006—with a smaller facility in Germany, called GEO-600, joining the network later in the year. If two neutron stars merge within 50 million light-years or so, the devices could detect the death spiral. It's a long shot, but we're betting they will.

RNAi-based treatments. They're moving into human patients with startling speed, and 2006 should offer the first hints of how well the highly touted technique works. Company-funded trials in macular degeneration and the pediatric illness respiratory syncytial virus are under way; another targeting hepatitis C is supposed to launch soon, with some therapies for neurological diseases to follow. Oh, and another treatment that's coming down the pike: RNAi for permanent hair removal.

Catching rays. The speediest atomic nuclei in the universe, called ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, may open a new frontier of physics. The sprawling Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina will near completion in 2006, offering the best chance to explore those limits. Already, Auger's powerful combination of ultraviolet telescopes and water-tank detectors is measuring different aspects of the particle showers sparked by incoming rays. Early results affirm a theorized energy threshold, imposed by interactions in space, that cosmic rays rarely cross.

Small worlds. With ever-better methods of pulling DNA from environments such as soils and the human gut, researchers are documenting the incredible microbial diversity on this planet. In 2006, expect a flurry of papers detailing the evolution and molecular bases of microbial communities and the relationships, both beneficial and pathogenic, between microbes and their partners; more examples of lateral transfer of genes between species; and—just possibly—consensus about a microbial family tree and a much sharper picture of how eukaryotic cells arose.

Seconding supersolidity. Two years ago, physicists reported that solidified helium appears to flow like a liquid without any viscosity. Theorists debate whether such “superflow” is possible in a well-ordered crystal, and no one has reproduced the result yet. Look for someone to confirm the observation—or shoot it down.

Homing in on high-Tc. In 1986, physicists discovered that certain compounds laden with copper and oxygen carry electricity without resistance, some now at temperatures as high as 138 kelvin. Twenty years later, researchers still aren't sure precisely how high-Tc superconductors work. But a variety of exquisitely sensitive experimental techniques should cull the vast herd of possible explanations.

Bird to watch for. Early in 2005, a blurry video and new sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, considered extinct for the past 60 years, wowed conservationists and birders alike. Some skeptics remained unconvinced by the 1.2-second footage, but many later were swayed by audio tapes of the woodpecker's call and distinctive “tap, tap.” Biologists are scouring the Arkansas bayou, where there have now been more than a dozen sightings, for more evidence that they are not seeing a ghost of a bird past. We're betting this “ghost” proves to be the real thing.

Now you see it?

A fleeting glimpse captured on video raised hopes that the ivory-billed woodpecker might not be extinct after all.


Online Extras on Areas to Watch

Avian Flu

P. C. Crawford et al., “Transmission of Equine Influenza Virus to Dogs,” Science 310, 482 (2005); published online 26 September 2005 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1117950]

T. M. Tumpey et al., “Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus,” Science 310, 77 (2005)

I. M. Longini, Jr., et al., “Containing Pandemic Influenza at the Source,” Science 309, 1083 (2005); published online 3 August 2005 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1115717]

M. Enserink, “Looking the Pandemic in the Eye,” Science 306, 392 (2004)

World Health Organization Avian Flu Page

Rich resource on bird flu from WHO Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response (EPR) group.

Pandemic Influenza

Public-outreach site from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Gravitational Waves

E. Nakar et al., “The Local Rate and the Progenitor Lifetime of Short Hard Gamma Ray Bursts: Synthesis and Predictions for LIGO,” (2005)

H. A. Bethe et al., “Evolution and Merging of Binaries with Compact Objects,” ph/0510379 (2005)

Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory

Online headquarters of the U.S. project.

GEO 600 Home Page

Online headquarters of the German project.

RNAi-Based Treatments

J. Couzin, “RNAi Shows Cracks in Its Armor,” Science 306, 1124 (2004)

E. Check, “A Crucial Test,” Nature Medicine 11, 243 (2005)

J. Simons, “Genetic Medicine's Next Big Step,” Fortune 27 December 2004

A. Pollack, “Method to Turn Off Bad Genes Is Set for Tests on Human Eyes,” New York Times 14 September 2004


R. F. Service, “Researchers Turn Up the Heat in Superconductivity Hunt,” Science 310, 1271 (2005)

K. McElroy et al., “Atomic-Scale Sources and Mechanism of Nanoscale Electronic Disorder in Bi2Sr2CaCu2O8+δ Science 309, 1048 (2005)

A. Cho, “Physicists Get the Dope on Disorder in High-Temperature Superconductors” Science 309, 1001 (2005)

Rich source of background and introductory tutorials on superconductivity; bills itself as “Following the path of least resistance.” Includes a review article on high-Tc superconductors.

Microbial Diversity

H. Ochman et al., “Examining bacterial species under the specter of gene transfer and exchange,” PNAS 102 Supp. 1, 6595 (2005)

N. Okamoto and I. Inouye, “A Secondary Symbiosis in Progress?,” Science 310, 287 (2005)

C. Davis et al., “Gene Transfer from a Parasitic Flowering Plant to a Fern,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 272, 2237 (2005)

S. G. Tringe et al., “Comparative Metagenomics of Microbial Communities,” Science 308, 554 (2005)

Microbial Metagenomics

Home site of a project investigating “the metagenome of marine microbial communities.”


A. Cho, “Flowing Crystals Flummox Physicists,” Science 309, 38 (2005)

A. Cho, “Signs of a Second Flowing Solid Deepen a Quantum Mystery,” Science 308, 190 (2005)

E. Kim and M. H. W. Chan, “Observation of Superflow in Solid Helium,” Science 305, 1941 (2004); published online 2 September 2004 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1101501]

Moses Chan's Research Group

Home page of low-temperature physics group at Penn State.

Pierre Auger Observatory

Pierre Auger Observatory

ICRC 2005 (Pune) Auger Papers

Scientific and technical papers presented by the Pierre Auger Observatory collaboration at the 29th International Cosmic Ray Conference, 3 10 August 2005, Pune, India

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

J. W. Fitzpatrick et al., “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America,” Science 308, 1460 (2005); published online 28 April 2005 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1114103]

D. S. Wilcove, “Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” Science 308, 1422 (2005)

D. Kennedy, “The Ivory-Bill Returns,” Science 308, 1377 (2005)

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