The Top 10 Science Stories of 2010 [Slide Show]
A microbe with an artificial genome, a volcano with an almost unpronounceable name, a disaster that blackened Gulf watersthese and other events defined this year in science and technology
Credits: RYAN REID
1. Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill On April 20, a well-head blowout at BP's Macondo oil well (pictured) set off an explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon rig floating about a mile above. The blast claimed 11 lives, sank the rig and unleashed a three-month deluge that spewed 750 million liters of crude oil (and natural gas) into the Gulf of Mexico. After several failed attempts to stem the relentless oil flow, BP capped the well on July 15. The Deepwater spill is already one of the worst natural disasters and will continue to harm marine and wildlife habitats for years to come.
There has been plenty of blame to go around for the fiasco. In November the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling concluded in their report (pdf) that clear indicators of problems existed in the cement mixture used by Halliburton, one of the rig contractors hired by BP, to supposedly seal any gas leaks prior to the well's explosion. On December 15, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against BP and eight other companies claiming violations of federal regulations concerning the operation and safety of oil rigs. The suit asks the court for civil penalties under the Clean Water Act and to declare eight of the defendants liable without limitation.
U.S. COAST GUARD
2. The Haiti Earthquake and Cholera Outbreak January's magnitude 7.0 earthquake created a long tail of death and destruction. Although the images of a wrecked capital city—stemming in large part to a lack of enforceable building codes—were stunning, the damage is still playing out nearly a year later.
Vibrio cholerae) has become widespread around the country, and cases are now being detected in the Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti), Cuba and Florida. Within the borders of Haiti more than 2,000 have died from cholera despite large-scale efforts to promote and distribute oral rehydration treatments and clean water. The nine-month lag between the earthquake and cholera outbreak may be linked to continued habitation of refugee camps. All told, the temblor has likely claimed more than 94,000 lives thus far.
Another more insidious health threat has also likely been brewing since the quake. "The largest burden of disease after these events is probably mental health issues," said Columbia University epidemiologist Sandro Galea.
Prior to the earthquake Haiti had limited medical and sanitation infrastructure. And despite the known risk of a large quake in that region, the country had little preparedness planning, especially when compared with Chile, which was hit with a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in February but was much less deadly. iSTOCKPHOTO/CLAUDIAD
3. Major Advances in HIV and AIDS Prevention The encouraging results from the Thai HIV vaccine trial late in 2009 boosted hope that the retrovirus could eventually be beaten. This year witnessed new strides in prevention.
A tenofovir-containing vaginal gel could help women avoid infection even if their partners refused to wear a condom. Women who used the gel as directed cut their risk of becoming infected by about 54 percent compared with a control group.
For men who have sex with men, a group with especially high HIV/AIDS transmission rates, the same drugs that have helped millions of infected individuals manage their illness might help keep it at bay. A November study showed that men who took a daily prophylactic dose of Truvada at least 90 percent of the time could reduce their risk of becoming infected by about 73 percent. Although such a regimen would be expensive and challenging to maintain over a long duration, the results show the biological feasibility of such an approach.
The best-known preventive strategy, however, went on display during the 2010 World Cup tournament in South Africa, where some 18 percent of adults may be HIV-positive. There, the local government ordered one billion condoms—enough, organizers hoped, to keep the country covered for the duration of the event's celebration.
4. Synthetic Life Will March 26, 2010, go down in history as the dawn of man-made life? That's the day scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute inserted an entirely synthesized genome into
Mycoplasma capricolum cell and turned it into Mycoplasma mycoides. By March 29 the artificial genetic instructions worked just as well as natural ones—in fact, a little better. The stripped-down artificial genome enabled the altered microbe to grow slightly faster than its natural counterpart.
For biologists in this field the goal is not to create life per se, but to change organisms to make them useful. And by building a genome from scratch, synthetic biologists hope to gain a better understanding of basic genetic principles, such as why the order of genes along the genome matters.
But many scientists don't consider Venter's creation as lab-generated life. And a Presidential Commission recently echoed that sentiment, concluding that such synthetic biology should be allowed to proceed, given the possible benefits, although it cautioned appropriate safeguards would be necessary. Still, the creation, dubbed Synthia, marks another step in the long journey to man-made organisms. It currently resides in a freezer at the Venter Institute branch in Maryland, awaiting both the chance to be useful and for the judgment of history. TOM DEERINCK AND MARK ELLISMAN, NATIONAL CENTER FOR MICROSCOPY AND IMAGING RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO Advertisement
5. Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull On March 20, a volcano in Iceland with an unpronounceable name erupted—and kept erupting over subsequent weeks. All told, Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced "AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl-uh"), whose name means "island mountain glacier" for the ice sheet it melted, injected some 250 million cubic meters of ash into the atmosphere. And its second major eruption on April 14 shut down air traffic in Europe for at least six days as the ash plume drifted over that continent, reaching more than 10 kilometers into the sky. The gritty ash posed too much of a risk to modern jet turbines, which could become clogged or flame out, and—besides the risk to life and limb—cost airlines and others more than $2.5 billion, according to the European Commission.
Eruptions on this scale—and bigger—are common, but they generally haven't happened in such important air space. But, ultimately, it's only a matter of time before Earth gives us a repeat performance: Volcanoes in Japan and the Pacific Northwest, for instance, are poised to go off any time, inevitably disrupting human activity.
COURTESY OF NASA / MARCO FULLE
6. A New Direction for NASA Since the dawn of the U.S. space program the nation has entrusted NASA, and NASA alone, to build and launch the rockets that carry its astronauts into orbit. That may soon change. As part of a massive shake-up of the agency proposed by President Obama in February, private companies would step in to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired in 2011, freeing NASA to set its sights on more distant destinations such as Mars.
The proposal generated plenty of discussion and controversy among legislators and commentators—including the editors of this magazine—but in September, Congress agreed in principle to a modified version of Obama's plan. Meanwhile, the start-up firm SpaceX completed a series of successful demonstrations in 2010 of its Falcon 9 rocket (shown in the photo), which could someday find use as a space taxi to orbit for NASA astronauts.
7. WikiLeaks The U.S. learned a hard lesson in data security on November 28 when
WikiLeaks, an organization championing whistle-blowers, began publishing what it claims will amount to more than 250,000 leaked U.S. embassy cables. This release was not the first, or even the second or third, major WikiLeaks publication of the year: in April it posted a video depicting a U.S. military helicopter attack on supposed insurgents in Iraq, and in July and October it posted sensitive reports on the Afghan and Iraq wars. But "cablegate" was apparently the final straw for the U.S. and its political allies. The documents describe international affairs from 300 embassies dated from 1966 to 2010 containing diplomatic analyses of world leaders, assessments of host countries and internal discussions about international and domestic issues.
Although no hacking seemed to be involved (many observers think that U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning simply copied the data and gave it to WikiLeaks), the furor shows that modern technology makes securing information difficult—and retaliation easy. After WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (pictured) was arrested on December 7 in the U.K. based on unrelated allegations of supposed sex crimes, his supporters went on the offensive, launching cyber attacks against the Web sites of MasterCard, PayPal, Visa and other organizations as well as people perceived to have wronged Assange and his operation. COURTESY OF ESPEN MOE, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
8. Return of the Electric Car More than a decade after its EV-1 electric car was "killed," General Motors's Chevrolet Volt (pictured) began shipping in December to car dealerships in California, New York State, Texas and Washington, D.C. Chevy claims the front-wheel-drive, four-passenger Volt can travel up to about 55 kilometers powered solely by its electric engine before the vehicle's gas-powered internal combustion engine kicks in to recharge the electric engine's lithium ion battery. (Hence, The Volt is not technically an all-electric vehicle.)
Not to be outdone, Nissan delivered its own all-electric vehicle, the LEAF, to its first North American customer. Unlike the Volt, the Leaf depends solely on its battery, which fully charged can go about 115 kilometers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More electric cars will follow, including the Ford Focus BEV (battery electric vehicle), in 2011.
Whether consumers take to all-electric vehicles remains to be seen, given the lack of dedicated charging stations that may still fuel "range anxiety" in many drivers. Tax breaks and other government incentives are helping early adopters, but driver satisfaction with the charging process, not to mention the vehicle's pickup and handling, will be crucial in determining whether electric cars are here to stay.
9. A Microbe That Lives on Arsenic... Or Does It? It all began with a vague but tantalizing press release: NASA issued a statement in late November about a forthcoming press conference "to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." Speculation that NASA had found ET ran rampant, but the actual finding turned out to be much more down to Earth. Researchers publishing in
Science announced that they had isolated a bacterial strain from California's Mono Lake that can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in a pinch, even taking the arsenic into the structure of its DNA. Phosphorus is one of six key nutrient elements that enable life as we know it; no other organism is known to swap out any of the six for an element outside the group. Before long, though, independent experts began piping up with complaints and caveats. The evidence, they argued, was insufficient to back up the extraordinary claim; the microbe might simply be sequestering the arsenic, rather than incorporating it. As 2010 draws to a close the toxic issue remains unsettled; perhaps the new year will bring a resolution. SCIENCE/AAAS
10. Neandertal Genome Decoded Long a topic of scandalous speculation, the occasional interbreeding of early humans and Neandertals was backed up by DNA evidence this year with the first major draft of the Neandertal genome.
In a May paper in
Science, researchers concluded that for those with roots outside of Africa, some 1 to 4 percent of a person's genetic material likely came from Neandertals. The find has led some to propose that Neandertals be recast in the evolutionary tree as a subspecies of modern humans: Homo sapiens neandertalensis.
The mitochondrial genome had been sequenced in 2008 and solidified the presupposition that our last common ancestor with Neandertals lived less than one million years ago (and possibly as recently as 520,000 years ago). The mDNA, however, could neither confirm nor deny that Neandertals and our human forbearers shared a cave bed.
With the draft of the genome, researchers have reported seeing Neandertal genes in well-known people. Former Black Sabbath front man Ozzy Osbourne, who had his full genome sequenced earlier this year, has some traces of Neandertal genetics. But Ozzy's caveman quotient turns out to be less than genetic company Knome's co-founder George Church, whose genome revealed about three times as much Neandertal content. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS Advertisement Expertise. Insights. Illumination.
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