Magazines and newspapers are full of lists of the most influential people and events of the past century and even the millennia. This columnist will not attempt anything quite so ambitious, but it does seem appropriate to review the year past for its top science stories.
What were the top science stories of 1999? It is unlikely that complete agreement could be reached for even the short span of twelve months, but I do feel good about the fact that my first choice is also the one given by the journal Science of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The runners-up are stories that, for one reason or another, make me believe they will have a significant impact on science or people’s lives.
As 1998 drew to a close, two teams of researchers reported they had isolated, and successfully grown, cultures of embryonic stem cells, the seemingly immortal cells that can give rise to any of the specialized cells in the body. A furor arose because the ES cells were derived from aborted fetuses or from early embryos discarded during invitro fertilization procedures.
This year a discovery was made that may help to resolve the ethical issues surrounding ES cell research. Stem cells isolated from adults were found to have the same ability as juvenile ones to become several different kinds of tissue. For example, stem cells from bone were coaxed into becoming liver cells.
Stem cells, the top science news story for 1999, have the potential to treat many neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and for growing or repairing organs such as the liver or heart. Look for continuing new advances in ES cell research, accompanied by heated controversy, well into the next decade.
The number two story has to be genetically modified foodstuffs. Here in Maine, GM corn containing a gene from the bacterial insecticide Bt was vandalized in experimental fields at the University of Maine, while European Union countries banned U.S. farmers’ products that have been genetically modified, labeling them “Frankenfoods.”
Concerns about GM foods grew this summer with a report that Monarch butterfly caterpillars died after feeding on transgenic corn pollen containing Bt. There is little question that GM foodstuffs have the potential to lead the world into a second “Green Revolution,” but there is also little question that their introduction will be met with vigorous, even violent, protests.
Honors for third place go to a story of failure rather than success, namely the loss of the last two Martian landers. Shocked by the unexplained loss of the $1 billion Mars Observer in 1993, NASA vowed to concentrate on smaller and cheaper expeditions to the Red Planet.
Many now believe that NASA’s problems are the direct result of its bare-bones budgets. The $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in September when English units were read as metric, an error that first-year physics students should not make.
It could only have been the result of too few and overextended ground personnel. No one knows why the $165 million Mars Polar Lander failed to phone home Dec. 3, but its silence spelled disaster for a space program already in shambles. Now the question is whether Congress will be willing to allocate further funding for NASA’s Mars program.
Fourth place goes to global warming, as 1998 temperatures were reported by the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva to be the highest since at least 1860 and possibly for the millennium. This report, coupled with one that says the Arctic polar ice sheet is retreating, is sufficient to continue the debate over greenhouse gases and global warming.
Fifth place goes to the death of 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger, who suffered from a genetically-inherited enzyme deficiency and who died four days after undergoing treatment at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Gene Therapy. No one knows how — or if — the gene therapy caused his death, but it is a significant setback to a new and promising field of biomedical therapy.
The following round out my top ten in order of importance. Some U.S. rivers were found to be reservoirs of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be transmitted to humans.
The crash of the Lunar Prospector into the moon on July 31 did not reveal any trace of water. The discovery of an obscure shrub on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific has forced botonists to rewrite the plant kingdom’s evolutionary tree. Physicists have been able to slow light from 300 million meters per second to a virtual crawl at 17 meters per second, opening a wide range of possibilities in telecommunications.
Finally, 1999 saw undisputed proof for planets around other stars, with one even being caught passing in front of its sun every 3.5 days.
Clair Wood taught physics and chemistry for more than a decade at Eastern Maine Technical College in Bangor.