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2001: Science’s top 10

by Rowan Hooper

In a year when the human genome sequence was published, when biological weapons were deployed and when a primate was cloned, how do you pick the scientific highlights and lowlights? You let the scientists do it for you.

Earlier this month, the editors of the leading American journal Science, like those of other more mudane publications, got together to list their choices for achievements of the year. They have lofty ideals: The top 10 are chosen for their profound implications for society and the advancement of science.

So in first place, the top scientific advance of 2001 is . . . nanoscale computer circuits.

While these molecular-scale circuits aren’t as headline-grabbing as cloned human embryos and GM foods, they will “undoubtedly provide computing power to launch scientific breakthroughs for decades to come,” say the Science editors. Who are we to argue?

Nanotechnology is the process of creating structures and machines at molecular and (theoretically) atomic scales — scales measured in nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). Nanotechnology is now poised, after decades of promise, to deliver radical new computers and machines. The celebrated U.S. physicist Richard Feynman launched the drive toward molecular-size machines in a visionary 1959 lecture called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” But only now is the technology to pursue his vision being developed.

As we reach the limits of what traditional silicon circuits can cope with and how small we can shrink them, nanocircuits have been urgently sought. In January of this year, Science published research that demonstrated communication along nanowires, and in November a paper describing nanowire-based logic circuits.

The achievements don’t mean much until you realize that these electronic processes are working at scales thousands of times smaller than the best silicon computer chips we have today. From here to robots that can enter cells, it’s still a few more years. But the tantalizing post-silicon world is in sight.

In the runner-up spot in the journal’s ranking is RNA, stepping out of the shadow of its better-known brother, DNA.

If double-stranded DNA is the message in which the instructions for life are written, then single-stranded RNA can be thought of as the messenger. In protein construction, the DNA message is carried by RNA while enzymes orchestrate the actual building. But cell biologists this year found that RNA can also perform the function of the message-reading enzyme: RNA is “self-catalyzing,” in the molecular-biology term. The discovery increases the likelihood that when life began, it was based on RNA rather than the more complex DNA.

More research published in 2001 showed that RNA also performs several other, unexpected tasks. Small snippets of RNA were found to interfere with gene expression in mice and humans — it’s almost as if the messenger is taking control of the message. More RNA surprises are sure to come.

In keeping, perhaps, with the idea of science as a progressive, democratic process, apart from the first runner-up, the rest of the top 10 is in no particular order. What else made the cut?

The human genome project is there, of course; indeed 2001 could justifiably be called the Year of the Genome. The genomes of more than 60 organisms are now known, including those of several disease-causing ones. The biggest shock about the human genome (apart from the fact that it was completed so quickly) was that it contains so few genes — fewer even than those in a lowly worm. What’s going on? It will take much research to find out.

Other breakthroughs include “smart bomb” cancer-fighting drugs; the solution to the mystery of the missing solar neutrinos that has had particle physicists scratching their big heads for years; and the development of superconductors that work at hotter and hotter temperatures.

There’s a flip side to the Science top 10 breakthroughs: the “Breakdowns of the Year.” The International Panel on Climate Change declared that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse-gas concentrations,” pinning the blame squarely on human activities. President George W. Bush nevertheless pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol.

There is a “science vacuum” in the Bush administration, says Science, echoing the view of many observers that there is also a large empty space behind the president’s eyes. “As to the crystal ball for this year’s U.S. science budget,” says Science editor Donald Kennedy, “we couldn’t even see into it, because no one was home.”

We can expect another year of revelations, despite the monkey in the White House. There are more scientists working today than all those who have ever lived, put together. The range of science is huge and its power irresistible.