Peering Into 2002

28 December 2001 (All day)

Last week, Science marked recent developments in nanotechnology as the Breakthrough of the Year. Science's editors also gazed in their crystal balls to predict which fields may make the headlines in 2002.

Stem cells abroad. The Bush Administration has limited federal support for human embryonic stem (ES) cell research to work on cell lines derived before 9 August 2001. That still leaves the door open for unfettered research in privately funded labs and in countries with less restrictive rules. Look for progress in translating results from mouse to human ES cells as governments around the world clarify their rules and more scientists gain access to the human cell lines. But also watch for legal and commercial entanglements as companies race to stake their claims in the wide-open field.

Proteomics. Genes tell cells what proteins to make, so figuring out how proteins interact is vital for leveraging genetic knowledge in medicine and biotech. It's a tough assignment: Although there might be as few as 35,000 genes, there might be millions of proteins. But the will is there: Biotech companies and funding agencies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into untangling the proteome. Next year could see the first protein-based drug targets from biotech proteomics.

Eyes on the sky. Early in 2002, the second of the Gemini project's 8-meter telescopes will be dedicated in Chile, following its sibling, which saw first light in Hawaii 2 years ago. The Very Large Telescopes (also in Chile), now fitted with new "adaptive optics," reportedly see as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. Next year, big sky efforts such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey should continue to produce solid results. Also on the horizon is the Virtual Observatory, a vast network of astronomical databases. Often called the World-Wide Telescope, it should open the heavens to rich discoveries in coming years.

Next in genetics. Chronic diseases generally result from the interplay of multiple genes. Geneticists have made much progress pinning down the genetic basis of single-gene disorders, but the roots of more complex diseases have been elusive. With the human genome sequence in hand, researchers expect to make clear progress in determining the relative contributions of various genes to problems such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Optical clocks and constants. Because they're based on higher frequency visible light waves rather than microwave radiation, optical clocks are an order of magnitude more accurate than previous instruments. They should lead to more precise global positioning systems and a new generation of experiments to test and challenge the fundamental constants of nature. In 2002, expect an increasing pace of research as optical clocks become the gold standards by which to judge other important measurements.

Visualization of complex systems. New imaging technology and ever-faster computers will come together to allow a closer look at biological molecules and their interactions. Recent lab successes with electron cryomicroscopy and electron microscope tomography are merging with computer simulation to create new views of how proteins work with each other. And labeling techniques for tagging proteins, lipids, and other biomolecules are evolving rapidly toward the goal of watching cell signaling as it occurs in space and time.

--The News and Editorial Staffs

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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