NewsBREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

Scorecard

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Science  19 Dec 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5909, pp. 1770-1771
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5909.1770

Rating last year's Areas to Watch

A smashing start

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The Large Hadron Collider came on smoothly in just a few hours, in keeping with Science's observation that the European particle physics lab, CERN, has a knack for getting new machines running quickly. Nine days later, the enormous particle smasher wrecked so bad that it will be down until summer, fulfilling Science's warning that a mishap could take the machine out of action for months.

Micromanagers

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MicroRNA work surged in 2008, as efforts to use the molecules to understand and modify disease edged forward. The first successful microRNA manipulation in primates lowered cholesterol in African green monkeys, and the molecules slowed virus replication in ailing mice. Companies are rushing to develop microRNA-based therapies—but coaxing microRNAs to combat disease is slow going, and safety concerns remain.

See Web links on microRNAs

Cell to order

CREDIT: JUPITERIMAGES (ARROWS)

Despite high hopes, humanmade microbes are not yet in reach. Researchers did customize cell-signaling circuits in live cells and are exploring new ways of building genomes from scratch. One research group synthesized an entire bacterial genome but has yet to incorporate it into a cell. And designing microbes to make biofuels remains a pipe dream.

See Web links on designing microbes

Paleogenomics

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It was a scramble to get enough sequence done, but a very rough genome of the Neandertal is almost in hand. Along the way, the sequencing team has obtained the complete sequence of Neandertal mitochondrial DNA, finding a few key differences between us and them. Two groups unraveled the mitochondrial genome of extinct cave bears. And sequencing 70% of the woolly mammoth genome prompted speculation about cloning this beast to bring it back to life.

See Web links on paleogenomics

Multiferroics

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Multiple electronic, magnetic, and structural behaviors give these materials the potential to carry out both logic and memory functions, now handled separately by semiconductors and metals. Researchers reported steady improvements in performance. Novel multiferroics can change their stripes near room temperature and in low magnetic fields, both important developments for real-world applications. But progress remains muted in turning these materials into complex circuitry.

Megamicrobes

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Metagenomics is in full swing, with several key surveys of microbial and viral diversity completed this year in environments as varied as microbial mats, subsurface ecosystems, and the mammalian gut. In addition, DNA sequences from nearly 200 genomes of bacteria associated with humans are finished, and hundreds more are in the pipeline. In October, groups from around the world formed the International Human Microbiome Consortium to study the role the human microbiome plays in health and disease.

See Web links on megamicrobes

New light on neural circuits

CREDIT: JUPITERIMAGES (ARROWS)

This year's Nobel Prize in chemistry honored scientists who turned a luminescent protein from jellyfish into a powerful tool for imaging cells. Building on that work, neuroscientists can now tag neurons with myriad colors to study their connections. And light-sensitive proteins from algae have made it possible to control neural firing with laser pulses. Such methods have great potential for unraveling the function of neural circuits. This year saw steady progress, and the bigger breakthroughs we predicted can't be far off.

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