Those stories aside, 2000 also saw its share of real breakthroughs. Perhaps first and foremost, it will be remembered as the year in which scientists sequenced the human genome. (Also, the first complete plant genome was revealed in December.) Both the publicly funded Human Genome Project and Celera Corporation raced to finish the monumental project, and on June 26th Celera announced it had completed a first draft. At a White House ceremony, J. Craig Venter, the head of Celera, said, "Today...marks an historic point in the 100,000-year record of humanity." As if finishing the thought, Venter's counterpart at the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, told the same audience that "we have caught a glimpse of an instruction book previously known only to God."
Many developments in 2000 came from efforts to help scientists actually read that book. Although the letters--the A, C, G and T of DNA's nucleotide bases--are familiar, most of the genes they spell out, and what those genes actually do, are not. The translation will undoubtedly continue for many years to come, but researchers worked on a variety of ways to make the process quicker. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute and Corning, Inc., for example, described a new technique based on a DNA microarray that lets them identify within a week the circuits controlled by so-called master switches in the genome--a task that normally takes years. This powerful method was yet one more added to the arsenal of scientists such as Stuart Kauffman at the leading edge of the bioinformatics gold rush.
The data that bioinformaticists mine from the genome promise to be a boon for medical researchers--who made significant progress in understanding and treating certain diseases during the past year. Again using microarray technology, Stanford scientists developed a new way both to diagnose and to look at lymphoma; Swiss and English scientists uncovered what may render prions--the proteins behind mad cow disease--so deadly; and others developed a vaccine for the dreaded hemorrhagic fever, Ebola. In laboratory tests, the vaccine protected monkeys from contracting a particularly lethal strain of the Ebola virus, which typically kills its victims within days. Scientists also made headway toward developing a vaccine for Alzheimer's disease and creating effective edible vaccines.
On other fronts, researchers continued to develop stronger, thinner, more conductive or more pliable materials for a range of applications. Much attention was focused on plastics that can conduct electricity--the discovery of which earned three polymer scientists the year's Nobel prize in chemistry. Such polymers lend themselves to light-emitting diodes, solar cells and displays for mobile phones, among other common products. Scientists also made progress last year in developing therapeutic plastics--which may help repel germs, battle cancer and repair nerves--and green plastics, which are made from plants instead of fossil fuels and are therefore thought to be safer for the environment.
In fact, the environment is definitely getting warmer, according to evidence from the seas released last year. One of the sturdiest pillars of the argument against global warming crumbled under the weight of some 10 million measurements of ocean temperature, which together revealed that the world's oceans have warmed substantially in the past 50 years. Some suggest that a warmer Earth will give rise to more illness--including those caused by the spread of viruses like West Nile, which recently invaded New York and other eastern U.S. states. But not all predictions about global warming held fast last year. Although glaciologists have warned for decades that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting and on the verge of collapse, new research showed that dynamics in the ice shelf could lead to another ice age instead.
Beyond Earth, researchers learned a great deal about other worlds in 2000 as well. Surveys in both hemispheres discovered more new planets outside the solar system, bringing the total to nearly 50. Of the many findings within this neck of the universe, some of the most spectacular came from the Galileo mission. In 1999 data from the spacecraft circling Jupiter bolstered the case that liquid water lurks inside the planet's moon, Europa. More recently it provided evidence that other moons--Callisto and Ganymede--too may harbor hidden seas. The craft further revealed that beams of electrons connect Io, the most volcanically tormented body in the solar system, to Jupiter; and a magnetic field is generated within Ganymede, the first such field ever discovered on a moon.
Surely in 2001--the real first year of the millennium--scientists and engineers will make new, startling finds. And no doubt certain classic debates will continue. The amount of water--future, past and present--on Mars, for example, is a perennial favorite. Although some features on the face of the Red Planet look clearly as if they were formed by liquid, other scientists argue that winds, volcanic activity and tectonics might be more to blame. And the origins of birds--another age-old controversy--is sure to surface yet again in the new year. We will again hear of ethical concerns over cloning, faith in artificial intelligence and findings that flip our understanding of the world. So stay tuned to this site for the latest.