SCI-TECH & AGRI

Top ten breakthroughs of the year

NEW EVIDENCE cemented the bizarre idea that the universe is made mostly of mysterious "dark matter," being stretched apart by an unknown force called "dark energy." This set of discoveries claims top honours as the Breakthrough of the Year, named by the journal Science. Chosen for their profound implications for society and the advancement of science, these insights into our "dark" universe plus nine other research advances make up Science's top ten scientific developments in 2003.

The Hubble Space Telescope has spied the most distant supernova ever, whose existence suggests that a repulsive "dark energy" is spurring the expansion of the universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope has spied the most distant supernova ever, whose existence suggests that a repulsive "dark energy" is spurring the expansion of the universe.  

Some of cosmologists' strangest proposals about the fate of the universe were confirmed this year, by information from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) telescopes.

Illumination of the dark, expanding universe

"The implications of these discoveries about the universe are truly stunning. Cosmologists have been trying for years to confirm the hypothesis of a dark universe. Science is glad to recognise their success in this effort as the Breakthrough of the Year for 2003," said Don Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science.

Those proposals entered the spotlight five years earlier, when Science's 1998 Breakthrough of the Year honoured the discovery that the universe was expanding. Such an expansion would likely be driven by a "dark energy" that counters the effects of gravity. However, many cosmologists were wary of this strange idea at the time.

Their doubts were dispelled in 2003. WMAP took the most detailed picture ever of the cosmic microwave background — the light emitted by the universe during the first instant of its existence. By analyzing this light, researchers concluded that the universe is only 4 percent ordinary matter. Twenty-three per cent is dark matter, which astrophysicists believe is made up of a currently unknown particle. The remainder, 73 percent, is dark energy.

WMAP also nailed down other basic properties of the universe, including its age (13.7 billion years old), expansion rate and density.

HIV and hepatitis can be combated by harnessing the power of small interfering RNAs.

HIV and hepatitis can be combated by harnessing the power of small interfering RNAs.  

The SDSS, an effort to map out a million galaxies, also made major contribution to our understanding of the universe this year. By analysing how galaxies are spread out through space, the researchers can see if the galaxies are being pulled apart by dark energy or pushed together by gravity. Later, the SDSS team reported its analysis of the first quarter-million galaxies. Its conclusion was the same as WMAP's: the universe is dominated by dark energy. The other nine scientific achievements of the year 2003 are the following.

Climate change impacts: Global warming was no longer remained within the realms of abstract concept in 2003. Melting of ice, droughts, decreased plant productivity, and altered plant and animal behaviour reported by scientists made this possible.

Cracking mental illness: It is particular genes which are to be blamed when it comes to diseases of the mind —

schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia is a chronic and disabling brain disease. People suffering from it often suffer terrifying symptoms such as hearing internal voices not heard by others, or believing that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. These symptoms may leave them fearful and withdrawn. Their speech and behaviour can be so disorganized that they may be incomprehensible or frightening to others.

Space shuttle Columbia broke apart, killing all seven astronauts, just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida.

Space shuttle Columbia broke apart, killing all seven astronauts, just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida.  

Scientists are now working to understand how these genes can distort the brain's information processing and prod someone into mental illness. Its just a matter of time before researchers understand brain biases underlying mental illnesses well enough to design drugs to repair them.

RNA advances: In 2003, Scientists explored how small ribonucleic acids (RNAs), science's breakthrough of 2002, impact a cell's behaviour, from early development to gene expression. Researchers may be helped in combating diseases such as HIV and hepatitis by harnessing the power of `small interfering RNAs' controlling specific protein production. Ribonucleic acid is a single-stranded nucleic acid made up of nucleotides. RNA is involved in transcription of genetic information; the information encoded in the DNA is translated into messenger RNA (mRNA), which controls the synthesis of new proteins.

Zooming in on single molecules: New collaborations between biologists and physicists captured the activities of individual molecules inside cells. Research this year offered a look at molecular motors, coloured nanocrystal tags attached to cell receptors and a single enzyme digesting DNA.

Drought among others made global warming move out of abstract concepts.

Drought among others made global warming move out of abstract concepts.  

Starbursts and gamma rays: Our understanding of the most energetic explosions in the universe was improved: tremendous blasts of energy called gamma ray bursts. Astronomers confirmed the connection between gamma ray bursts and supernovas — explosions of massive stars — when they spotted the unmistakable fingerprint of a supernova in the glow of a bright gamma ray burst. NASA's Swift satellite set for launch in mid-2004 should catch gamma ray bursts at five times the rate of any previous mission.

Spontaneous sperm and egg cells: Scientists sprung a surprise by discovering that mouse embryonic stem cells can develop into both sperm and eggs. This finding may help scientists learn how these sex cells develop and why some kinds of infertility arise. Raising serious ethical questions was the possibility that human embryonic stem cells might someday become a source for human eggs also raised serious ethical questions.

Left-handed materials: It took years of intense debate before several research teams confirmed that certain high-tech materials can bend light and other electromagnetic radiation in the `wrong' direction. Scientists used this new class of materials to produce an inverse Doppler effect and are also working to craft better lenses.

Areas to watch in 2004 include three planned Mars landings

Areas to watch in 2004 include three planned Mars landings  

The self-reliant Y chromosome: The Y chromosome unlike other chromosomes is a loner. In 2003, the genetic sequence of the human male Y chromosome revealed why Y chromosome doesn't need a partner. It has duplicate genes, arranged as mirror-image "palindromes." Thus, when mutations arise and a new gene copy is needed, a twin copy is on-hand.

Breakthrough cancer therapies: Researchers announced in June of 2003 that lives of patients with advanced colon cancer can be prolonged by treating them with an antiangiogenesis drug given along with conventional chemotherapy drugs in a large clinical trial. The Antiangiogenesis drugs starve the tumours by preventing blood vessel growth. With around 60 different antiangiogenesis drugs currently in clinical trials against a wide variety of cancers, researchers and patients now appear poised to reap the benefits of angiogenesis research.

Special SARS section: Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) clamoured onto the world stage in March 2003 after first appearing in November 2002. It is a respiratory disease of unknown etiology that apparently originated in mainland China in 2003; characterised by fever and coughing or difficulty in breathing or hypoxia. It served as a reminder that new infectious diseases can emerge at any time — and that they do not have to sicken a lot of people to choke national economies. Scientists definitively nailed the agent as a member of the coronavirus SARS-CoV family.

SARS served as a reminder that new infectious diseases can emerge at any time.

SARS served as a reminder that new infectious diseases can emerge at any time.  

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that have a halo or crown-like (corona) appearance when viewed under a microscope. These viruses are known to be a common cause of mild to moderate upper-respiratory illness in humans and are associated with respiratory, gastrointestinal, liver and neurological disease in animals. They have occasionally been linked to pneumonia in humans, especially people with weakened immune systems.

Science's breakdown of the year emerged on 1 February 2003, when the space shuttle `Columbia' disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere after a science mission. The tragedy left seven dead, the shuttle fleet grounded and NASA's future in question. Much of 2004 could be dedicated to a re-examination of NASA's civil space program.

Where researchers might soar in 2004: As in previous years, Science highlighted areas to watch in 2004. This year, their choices include three planned Mars landings, microbiology and genomics for biodefence, more insights into the human genome, open access scientific journals, soils' impact on climate change and sustainable agriculture, the debate over the costs and benefits of tighter security and anti-terror measures in the realm of science, and studies of the heavy `bottom' quark. — Our Staff Reporter

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