Best of 2007: Genes, Exoplanets, and a Cardboard Bridge

Magazines diverge on the standout breakthroughs and discoveries of the year

Each December, many magazines deliver their obligatory summing-up issues of the highs and lows of the past twelve months. Time names its person of the year, Rolling Stone names the best songs of the year, et cetera, et cetera. It’s also an occasion that allows science, which often takes a back seat to politics and business, to shine.

There’s something far more intriguing about the best scientific discoveries and inventions of the year than, say, the best political maneuver, stock trade, or merger. But statistics suggest that many Americans are still unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable, with science; so highlighting the best of the best seems a palatable way to sum up what the people in lab coats have done for us lately. Deciding what to single out from the past year is a subjective process, often based on criteria known only to the people choosing, and this year, magazines had some differing opinions about what it means to excel in science.

Yesterday, Science named its Breakthrough of the Year for 2007 - “human genetic variation” -for a number of studies on DNA sequencing. This year, Craig Venter sequenced the first entire human genome (his own), and many other discoveries by other scientists expanded our knowledge of the links between genes and particular traits and diseases. Writing for the editors, Elizabeth Pennisi deftly and intelligently describes the field’s import:

The potential to discover what contributes to red hair, freckles, pudginess or a love of chocolate - let alone quantifying one’s genetic risk for cancer, asthma or diabetes - is both exhilarating and terrifying. It comes not only with great promise for improving health through personalized medicine … but also with risks for discrimination and loss of privacy.

Pennisi’s piece doesn’t delve into specifics, such as who helped create the charting system for scientists to track genes involved in complex diseases, or which exact studies best explained the intricacies of human genomes. But given that during the past year more than 400 U.S. newspaper articles highlighted this type of research, the broad overview is understandable. (It is interesting to note, too, that the number of genome-sequencing newspaper articles in 2007 is perhaps only half the number that focused on embryonic stem cell research, though the variety of articles published on the latter makes it more difficult to measure. There have been roughly 200 articles related to the announcement in November that scientists had turned human skin cells into what amount to embryonic stem cells, which Science named first runner-up Breakthrough of the Year.)

One group that Pennisi does highlight in her article about genome sequencing, the Wellcome Trust, also got a nod from Scientific American. The trust, which is based in the U.K., is the world’s second-largest medical charity. The editors named the group’s Case Control Consortium its Research Leader of the Year for a report it released in June linking variations (or expressions) of specific genes to increased risk for certain diseases. The trust, however, is only one of the SciAm 50.

Scientific American honored Amyris Biotechnologies as its Business Leader of the Year for its work on biofuel derived from yeast genomes; and it named the X Prize Foundation its Policy Leader of the Year for its innovative approach - contest money and notoriety - to spurring R&D projects on such things as making space travel safe and accessible. In addition to the three leaders, SciAm tipped its hat to forty-seven other standout individuals and businesses of the year. All are meritorious, certainly; unfortunately, with such a large group, a few hidden jewels-studies of cordless electric power, renewable fuels, a human form of mad cow disease -are bound to get lost. Deeper coverage of fewer winners would give the article more impact.

Discover magazine named David Charbonneau its Scientist of the Year for studies of exoplanets, which are outside of our solar system and are visible only when they pass in front of distant stars. The more he learns about them, the editors say, the closer Charbonneau may come to answering whether life exists beyond Earth. It’s quite different from human-genome research, but makes sense given Discover’s propensity for the quirkier aspects of science. Unlike the discoveries cited by the other science magazines, research on exoplanets doesn’t really affect human life in the here and now. Looking beyond our solar system is fascinating and worthwhile, no doubt, but the research is more likely to lift our spirits than cure our earthly troubles.

Beyond the scientific press, only a couple of weekly magazines chimed in with their favorite breakthroughs of 2007, including The New York Times Magazine and Time. Together, the publications cover an alphabet’s worth of discoveries (the Times literally lines them up A to Z), giving readers just a taste of each. Considering these magazines’ much broader readerships, this approach works, showing just how eclectic scientific research can be and how broadly it touches the daily, consumer-driven lifestyle. Committed science aficionados will want more detail, as I did with Scientific American, but Time and the Times would surely turn readers off with too much nitty-gritty. People want the cocktail-party nugget, and can absorb a bunch from some of the best (or most outlandish) of what’s there-from asthma, diabetes, and obesity research, to edible alcohol, higher taxes for taller people, and a cardboard bridge that can hold the weight of twenty adults.

Ultimately, picking the most outstanding scientific discoveries and breakthroughs of a given year depends on editors’ (and readers’) criteria: must the work be of immediate and tangible value to the human race, or can it merely promise some remote benefit farther down the road. Must the research help cure or bodies, or it is enough to simply entertain. Everybody has a different opinion about what’s most important, but that is what makes these wrap-ups so popular. Just thinking about it is half the fun.

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Michele Wilson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.