NewsBREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

Areas to Watch

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Science  23 Dec 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6063, pp. 1630-1631
DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6063.1630

In 2012, Science's editors will be watching the Large Hadron Collider (again), faster-than-light neutrinos, stem-cell metabolism, genomic epidemiology, efforts to treat intellectual disabilities, and Curiosity's mission to Mars.

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The Higgs boson

We've said this before (in 2008), but this time we're sure: Next year, particle physicists will either find the long-sought Higgs boson or prove that it does not exist, at least not with the properties ascribed by the standard theory. That's not so much a prediction as it is a matter of fact. The world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, is cranking out data at such a stupendous rate that—barring breakdown—the Higgs must either make an undeniable appearance or be deemed an unequivocal no-show. It's all but a mathematical certainty.

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Faster-than-light neutrinos

This year, physicists with the OPERA particle detector rocked the world when they reported that subatomic particles called neutrinos made the 730-kilometer trip between CERN in Switzerland and Italy's subterranean Gran Sasso National Laboratory at slightly faster than light speed. Researchers with the MINOS experiment, which shoots neutrinos from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, to the Soudan mine 735 kilometers away in Minnesota, say they will try to reproduce the result by early 2012. Don't be surprised if it takes a little longer—and if neutrinos do not really fly faster than light.

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Stem-cell metabolism

CREDIT: YUHUAN WANG/THE CELL: AN IMAGE LIBRARY

The way stem cells use energy and intermediate metabolites seems to help determine when they differentiate and what kinds of cells they become. In 2012, look for researchers to use large-scale studies of stem cell metabolism to gain new insights into how stem cells regulate themselves in the body—and how scientists might tweak the process in the lab or in patients.

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Genomic epidemiology

Not long ago, sequencing a single bacterium's genome took years; now the job takes less than a day. Scientists are beginning to harness that power to track pathogens' movements in more detail than ever before. Whole-genome sequences will help to determine quickly where newly emerging diseases come from, whether microbes are resistant to antibiotics, and how they are moving through a population; they will also shed light on historic epidemics.

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Treating intellectual disability

The cognitive deficits and behavioral problems caused by Rett, Fragile X, and Down syndromes have long been considered irreversible. In each syndrome, a genetic glitch causes brain development to go awry even before birth. But recent work with mouse models of these conditions suggests, remarkably, that some cognitive and behavioral symptoms may be reversible. Treatments that target growth factors or neurotransmitter receptors in the brain are now in human clinical trials, and preliminary results should start to emerge in 2012. Meanwhile, expect preclinical researchers to keep coming up with new targets.

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Curiosity to Mars

CREDIT: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

NASA will have more than the $2.6 billion cost of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission riding on a successful landing on the Red Planet next August. MSL's new “entry-descent-landing” system—designed to lower the 900-kilogram nuclear-powered Curiosity rover gently onto the martian surface—is essential to NASA's ambitious plans to return rock samples to Earth. It is engineered to achieve the pinpoint landings on Mars needed to collect specific samples and return them on a later mission. Failure of the landing system on its first voyage would be disastrous for much more than Curiosity.

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