Areas to Watch in 2007

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Science  22 Dec 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5807, pp. 1854-1855
DOI: 10.1126/science.314.5807.1854

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World-weary? Hardly. Four fledgling spacecraft will give planetary scientists plenty to ponder in 2007. Europe's COROT orbiting exoplanet hunter, scheduled for launch 27 December, should detect dozens of new “hot Jupiters” around other stars and may even bag its big quarry: signs of rocky planets just a few times the size of Earth. Closer to home, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will take the sharpest-ever pictures of the martian surface and will use radar to look for rock layers—and ice—as much as 1 kilometer deep. The Venus Express orbiter will be going full tilt, and in February, New Horizons will send back snapshots of Jupiter en route to its 2015 rendezvous with Pluto.


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Skulls and bones. In recent years, paleoanthropologists have uncovered new skulls, teeth, and lower limbs of the earliest members of our genus Homo at sites in the Republic of Georgia, China, and Kenya. In 2007, the first descriptions of these fossils should give clues to the identity of the first human ancestors to leave Africa about 1.8 million years ago—such as whether the bones all belong to one species (Homo erectus) or to two or more. Meanwhile, the long-awaited partial skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, an early human ancestor that lived in Ethiopia 4.4 million years ago, promises to shed light on how upright walking evolved in early hominids.

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Loads of new primate genes. With the human and chimpanzee genomes sequenced, genetic research into our evolutionary past is scrambling up other branches of the primate family tree. Lowresolution maps of gorilla, rhesus macaque, orangutan, marmoset, and gibbon genomes are already available, and refined, error-free versions should be ready in 2007. In addition, look forward to rough drafts of the genomes of the galago, tree shrew, and mouse lemur. If things go as planned, a comparative analysis of all these genomes might finally begin to explain what sets humans apart.

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A climate of change? The case for human-induced warming will grow even more ironclad as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its report in February. Meanwhile, the International Polar Year, opening in March, will feature climate research on Earth's coldest climes. And the world is watching the U.S. Congress, which, under Democratic control, is expected to pass some sort of mandatory emission regime, and President George W. Bush, whose response will be sure to shape the debate.

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Whole-genome association studies. The trickle of studies comparing the genomes of healthy people to those of the sick is fast becoming a flood. Already, scientists have applied this strategy to macular degeneration, memory, and inflammatory bowel disease, and new projects on schizophrenia, psoriasis, diabetes, and more are heating up. But will the wave of data and new gene possibilities offer real insight into how diseases germinate? And will the genetic associations hold up better than those found the old-fashioned way?

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Light crystals. Ultracold atoms continue to be one of the hottest areas in physics. Now researchers are loading the atoms into corrugated patterns of laser light known as optical lattices. The lattices work like artificial crystals, with the spots of light serving as the ions in the crystal lattice and the atoms playing the role of electrons moving through it. Optical lattices could help crack problems such as high-temperature superconductivity and seem sure to produce interesting new physics. Look for rapid progress in this burgeoning effort.

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