April 09, 2020

A sheep named Dolly

The most recent issue of the journal Science listed what it considered to be the 10 top science stories of 1997. No one could seriously disagree with their top two picks, however, after that the field widens considerably. Here, for what they are worth, are this columnist’s top science news stories for the year just past. The first five were chosen as certain to have a major impact on scientific and medical research or the future well-being of the world’s population. The rest are interesting stories but could be replaced by other choices.

Without question the cloning of a sheep named Dolly was the top news story of 1997 both for the publicity it received and the potential impact on humankind. It was a first in that the nucleus used was that of an adult sheep. Previously only those of fetal cells had been used. It raised immediate fears that cloning of humans was just around the corner. While this is not the case, the ethical and moral questions raised by cloning has now been thrust into the public arena. Since Dolly, sheep have been cloned who carry the gene for human IX protein used to aid in blood clotting. Cloning will prove to be as great an achievement as the discovery of antibiotics.

On the 4th of July, the Mars Pathfinder made a bouncing landing on the red planet and soon released an inquisitive robot named Sojourner who sniffed out the chemistry of nearby rocks. Pathfinder sent back breathtaking pictures of the Martian landscape but its true value was the testing of new equipment for future probes to search out the possibility of life having once existed on Mars. Cold silenced Pathfinder’s power sources and attempts to reach the craft ceased in early November. A NASA official said Sojourner may have lasted for some time after its mother ship and wandered around waiting for instructions that never came. Pathfinder was the first touchdown on Mars since 1976 easily qualifying it for second place in the news stories for 1997.

The choice for third place did not make the Science list but has the potential for being a disaster waiting to happen. This is the rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause tuberculosis and other fatal infections. The World Health Organization says that over 30 million people will die of TB in the next decade. An Associated Press report for 1996 says that 21,000 Americans contracted the disease while it spread from 13 to 42 states. The same grim statistics hold for Europe and are worse in Asia and Africa. Earlier this year a strain of Staphylococcus aureus was isolated that is resistant to vancomycin, the only antibiotic left to which it remained susceptible. Resistant S. aureus has the potential to spread unchecked through the nation’s hospitals.

Fourth place goes to the sequencing of the entire genetic codes, or genomes, for two strains of bacteria widely-used as laboratory subjects. The two, E. coli found in the human gut and a common soil bacterium B. subtilis, have over 4 million base units in their genetic code making this a technological breakthrough of major proportions. Down the road, genetic manipulation of the geneomes will help show how bacteria invade their hosts and lead to the development of new ways to combat them.

Simply because of the publicity and politics surrounding global warming, it has to be accorded a place in the top five stories of 1997. With an election looming on the horizon, this is a topic that will not go away and is certain to generate as much heated rhetoric as greenhouse warming. Brace yourself for more than you ever wanted to know about carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases.

The other stories picked for 1997, in no particular order, are comet Hale-Bopp, the isolation of DNA from a Neandertal fossil, El Nino, the Cassini mission because of the furor over its plutonium power source, and the possibility of the Earth being pelted with house-sized snowballs from space.

Clair Wood is the Bangor Daily News science columnist.

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