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Peering Into 2001

29 December 2000 7:00 pm
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Sea change. Terra, launched in December 1999, will yield massive amounts of data about Earth's oceans.

Last week, Science marked this year's progress in genomics research as the Breakthrough of the Year. Science's editors also gazed in their crystal ball to predict which fields may make the headlines in 2001.

New views of the ocean. New satellites launched in the past 3 years to keep watch on the oceans should yield big dividends in 2001. Instruments such as SeaWiFS, which detects ocean chlorophyll, and Terra, NASA's giant new Earth-observing satellite, are mapping ocean temperatures, circulation, and photosynthesis by tiny ocean plants. This data gusher should yield insights into short-term climate changes such as El Niño, as well as the first global picture of seasonal ocean productivity.

Infectious diseases. Research into the planet's major scourges is moving out of the backwaters and onto the world stage. In 2000, the White House, the European Union, and the G-8 all announced multimillion-dollar initiatives to battle TB, malaria, and HIV, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chipped in, too. New drugs and vaccines will take years to develop, but expect a flurry of papers to pave the way.

RNA surveillance. Biologists have recently found that organisms from molds to plants, worms, and perhaps even mammals can "silence" genes by degrading their messenger RNAs (mRNAs). But researchers can also shut down specific genes, which may be useful for studying gene function and may also allow the creation of new genetically modified organisms. Scientists are also making progress in figuring out "nonsense mediated decay," a method by which cells proofread mRNAs to avoid defective proteins. In 2001, look for more progress toward understanding these fundamental defense strategies.

Follow the money. Politicians everywhere are talking up research. Both U.S. presidential candidates raised hopes this fall, as did their Canadian counterparts, that science will be awash in new money in 2001. Likewise in the United Kingdom, although the largesse may favor the well-endowed, while French bioscientists are basking in the best budget in a decade. Japan is poised to maintain a fast pace despite a prolonged economic slump, and China is rewarding its scientific stars and luring back those currently overseas. Germany and Italy anticipate more modest growth rates. Less encouraging is Russia, where efforts to shore up its crumbling scientific elite have so far fallen short.

Quark soup. Physicists at Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, New York, will be replicating a little piece of the universe as it was at the tender age of 10 microseconds. When gold atoms in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) smash together, the nuclei will reheat into a primordial plasma of free quarks and gluons, particles normally locked up in protons and neutrons. This new state of matter has been glimpsed at CERN, but this year RHIC researchers will start painting a complete portrait.

On one hand or the other. Scientists trying to decipher how a cell tells its left from its right--or top from bottom--are likely to find some answers in the coming year. Cell biologists are working with flies, nematodes, and yeast to learn how proteins or RNA are directed to one side of a cell but not the other. And watch for the results from several teams attempting to replicate surprising experiments reported in 1999 that suggested mammalian embryos determine right from left with a system of swirling cilia.

Related site

An expanded version of the Breakthrough of the Year section, with references and many links, is posted at Science Online

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