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The year in science

From left: UW-Madison / CERN / Steven W. Marcus
The year's top breakthroughs include reprogramming cells for disease studies,
starting up the Large Hadron Collider, and reconstructing a woolly mammoth's DNA.

Why would anyone want to create diseased cells in the lab? Because that's the best way to learn how to cure those diseases. The ability to transform a patient's ordinary skin cells into virtually any kind of tissue - including the cells that caused the illness in the first place - ranks as this year's biggest breakthrough in the journal Science's annual roundup.

The other stars of this year's scientific show include the gene-decoders who are figuring out the instructions for making a woolly mammoth, or even a Neanderthal. Then there are the astronomers who, for the first time, spotted what appear to be planets circling alien stars. And let's not forget the biggest science experiment on the planet, the Large Hadron Collider, which started up this year (and almost immediately broke down).

One of the year's biggest science stories is breaking too late for Science's annual list - but came to light today on the journal's ScienceInsider blog: Harvard physicist John Holdren, who is the director of the Woods Hole Research Center as well as an adviser to President-elect Barack Obama on science and environmental issues, is in line to be named the next White House science adviser, Science's Eli Kintisch quotes sources as saying.

The report is spreading like wildfire through the blogosphere. It's worth noting that Holdren's name surfaced as one of the top prospects more than a year ago on Cosmic Log, in the midst of our discussion about future science czars.

Physicist John Holdren discusses science policy in a video recorded for
Science Debate 2008 early this year. The ScienceInsider blog reports that
Holdren is President-elect Barack Obama's pick for science adviser.

Having Holdren as science adviser "would be an enlightened appointment," Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a news release.

"John Holdren's expertise spans so many issues of great concern at this point in history - climate change, energy and energy technology, nuclear proliferation," Leshner said. "He is widely respected in the United States and around the world as a science leader."

Holdren served as AAAS's president in 2006-07 and was chairman of the association's board in 2007-08. AAAS is the publisher of Science, but today's news release emphasized that the journal's news team was editorially independent.

Not everyone was thrilled to hear about the choice: The Competitive Enterprise Institute's Chris Horner called Holdren a "leading global warming alarmist" in a posting to the Open Market blog.

"With a Holdren nomination, the president-elect will have made his intentions unmistakably clear," Horner wrote. "This will unleash a policy battle royale and, fortunately, likely the ultimate defeat of the alarmist agenda."

And so it begins. ...

Plenty to think about
Science's annual roundup will give Holdren plenty to think about over the next year. The list serves as an annual top-10 parade for discoveries that illuminate the workings of the universe - and also set the stage for discoveries to come. Last year, human genetic variation took the top spot, but cell reprogramming was the runner-up.

In 2007, researchers found a way to give ordinary human skin cells the transformative power usually associated with embryonic stem cells. When snippets of genetic code were added, the cells are able to transform themselves into other tissue types. Such cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells.

This year, teams of researchers built on that foundation by taking samples from patients who had diseases ranging from juvenile diabetes to Parkinson's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease - a rogue's gallery of humanity's scourges. Those samples were transformed to produce what appear to be "made-to-order" embryonic stem cells - without harming a single embryo.

The technology could give rise to long-lasting cell lines that exhibit the disease traits, suitable for culturing and studying in the lab. That's something that, in many cases, can't be done using animal tissue or even tissue samples from living humans. Potentially risky drug therapies or gene therapies could be applied to the cell cultures for testing without subjecting the actual patient to any of the risk.

Other researchers transformed ordinary pancreatic cells from mice directly into more specialized insulin-producing cells, and came up with a easier, safer way to make IPS cells.

In a news release, Science's deputy news editor, Robert Coontz, said cellular reprogramming has "opened a new field of biology almost overnight and holds out hope of life-saving medical advances."

The rest of the best
Here's a quick rundown of nine other breakthroughs that made Science's top-10 list, with links to more information about each discovery:

Seeing alien planets: Astronomers directly observe planets orbiting other stars, using special techniques to distinguish the planets' faint light from the stars' bright glare.

Exposing cancer genes: Geneticists sequence the genes from various cancer cells, finding dozens of mutations that remove the brakes on cell division and send the cells down the path to malignancy.

Making super-duper-conductors: Researchers find a whole new family of high-temperature superconductors that are based on iron compounds instead of the usual copper and oxygen compounds.

Watching proteins at work: Biochemists use new techniques to watch protein molecules bind to their targets in the cell, switch its metabolic state and contribute to a tissue's properties.

Storing renewable energy: A low-cost type of cobalt-phosphorus catalyst can use the excess electricity from part-time sources (such as solar cells or wind turbines) to extract hydrogen from water. The stored hydrogen can then be fed into fuel cells to produce electricity again.

Capturing an embryo on video: Using a new laser technique, researchers record "movies" that trace the movements of 16,000 cells in a developing zebrafish embryo.

Transforming 'good' fat: Scientists discover that they can morph "good" brown fat, which burns "bad" white fat to generate body heat, into muscle and vice versa.

Calculating the world's weight: Physicists run the numbers to show that the observed mass of protons and neutrons can be "predicted" by theory alone.

Speeding up the genome revolution: Aided by faster, cheaper, better gene-sequencing technologies, geneticists decipher the DNA of more and more living humans, as well as the long-extinct organisms such as woolly mammoths and Neanderthals. 

Beyond the top 10
In addition to the top 10, Science's editors highlighted seven trends to watch in 2009: plant genomics, ocean acidification, brain fingerprinting in criminal cases, climate-change summitry in Copenhagen, cosmic dark-matter revelations, speciation genes and the Tevatron's last chance to find the elusive Higgs boson.

The editors' "Breakdown of the Year" was the global economic meltdown, which is likely to have an impact on fields ranging from energy and biomedical research to the financial health of the nation's hospitals and universities.

"Luckily, scientific research did not take a direct hit, but scientists are feeling the consequences like everyone else, and research budgets could get caught in the fallout next year," Science's Eliot Marshall wrote.

But wait: Wouldn't the scientific breakdown of the year have to be the Large Hadron Collider, which was shut down just days after its Sept. 10 startup due to an electrical fault? The $10 billion particle accelerator, which sparked a months-long doomsday debate, isn't due to start up again until mid-2009. Between now and then, Europe's CERN physics research center is expected to spend $29 million on repairs.

The collider's ups and downs would rank as the year's top science story in my book, simply because it captured the public's attention so thoroughly. Instead, Science's editors saw the LHC as the biggest manifestation of their "phenomenon of the year": Europe's rising profile in big science projects. Other examples include Europe's lead role in the ITER fusion experiment, the addition of Europe's Columbus lab to the international space station and the projects being pushed by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures.

"By most objective measures, U.S. research still leads the world," Science's Daniel Clery wrote, "but in their ability to pool resources in the pursuit of 'big science,' European nations are showing increasing ambition and success."

Will that situation change in 2009? Federal research budgets were strained even before the economic meltdown - but science fans seem to be putting a lot of faith in Obama to turn things around. Now it looks as if Holdren will play a key role in turning that faith into solid science policy.

Feel free to weigh in with your comments on what the next year in science will bring. If you think the top-10 list has neglected any discoveries, be sure to remedy that omission below. But if you're looking for a roundup of the top stories and trends in space travel and exploration, just wait a few days. We'll take a closer look at the "Year in Space" next week. 

Update for 8:15 p.m. ET: While we're on the subject of Obama's selections ... Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenko is said to be the president-elect's choice to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has the National Weather Service under its wing. Check out this video from EnergyEnvironment.tv, in which Lubchenko offers congressional testimony on oceans and global warming.

It sounds as if Obama is on a roll, filling out his White House team for environment, science and technology issues. So how long will it be until his plans for NASA come to light?

While you ponder that question, check out this video that wraps up the year's top trends in science and technology.

This report was last updated at 1:52 a.m. ET Dec. 19.