The top science stories of 2008

Column: Greatest advances include efforts to reprogram cells, ways to see distant planets, and a less expensive way to turn water into fuel.

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An engineer inspects the James Webb Space Telescope testbed. The telescope will hit orbit in 2013.

Year-end reviews of top news stories often reek of gloom and doom. Not so with top science/technology stories. Lists assembled by scientific organizations and publications tend to glow with discovery and promise. A small sampling makes the point.

Major advances in geneticists’ ability to reprogram living cells made most of those lists. The journal Science calls it the “breakthrough of the year.” This is the ability to take a living adult cell – say a skin cell – and return it to the state of a stem cell. That’s a cell that can become any one of many different types of cells. The new techniques for such reprogramming demonstrated last year represent such an advance over anything done in the past that geneticists expect to gain unprecedented insight into what Science calls “the biology of how a cell decides its fate.”

Equally prominent is the demonstration for the first time ever that astronomers can see alien planets directly from telescopes on the ground and in space. Over 300 planets orbiting other stars have been found so far. Astronomers located them by analyzing how their gravity tugged on their star or how they dimmed the star’s light when passing in front of it. Now several alien worlds have been imaged directly in what one astronomer called “the beginning of a new era” in planet hunting.

Also, astronomers using the infrared sensor on the Hubble Space Telescope have detected carbon dioxide and methane on an alien planet. Both gases are considered possible indicators of organic life processes. That planet is too hot to sustain life. But NASA says demonstrating that such biomarkers can be detected encourages astronomers to expect that they can pick up life signs on smaller more hospitable planets when the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope is on orbit around 2013.

There was new encouragement in searching for ways to make hydrogen a practical fuel. Chemists have used electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen for two centuries. But the catalysts (such as platinum) used to facilitate the process are too costly and require conditions too specialized for large scale use. Last year, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team reported successful use of a catalyst based on relatively cheap and abundant cobalt that works under relatively easily maintained conditions. There’s a long way to go from this lab demonstration to an industry that uses sunlight-generated electricity to produce hydrogen fuel. But, as a commentary in Science pointed out, with the route to a practical catalyst now open, experts expect progress can be swift.

Advances in computing power and in analysis using DNA and related life molecules encouraged scientists in their quest to understand the development of earthly life. Researchers reported that 70 percent of the DNA of the extinct mammoth now has been sequenced. They expect soon to read the entire mammoth code. And at France’s University of Lyon, Manolo Gouy and colleagues reported getting a better estimate of the nature and date of the last common ancestor from which organic life subsequently evolved billions of years ago. The clues are hidden in the present-day chemistry of organic life.

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