Friday April 25, 2014




Top 10 science stories of 2013: six to ten

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As I wrote last week, there was not a lot of consensus in the scientific world in 2013 as to what the most important stories were. Of course, we all have our personal biases. My own include evolution, space, health and Canada, all of which are reflected in my Top 10, the first five of which I covered last week. Here are numbers 6 through 10.

6. Human story

Every year, we learn more about the human family tree and 2013 was no exception. I'm not sure there was one particular discovery that trumps the rest in terms of making my top science stories of the year. Rather, it was an accumulation of research that struck me as significant.

In 2008, a new lineage to modern humans was found in Siberia and dubbed the Denisovans. DNA from a toe bone unearthed in that excavation revealed it was from a Neanderthal woman and that modern humans, outside of Africa, share 1.5 to 2.1 per cent of our genome with Neanderthals and that 0.2 per cent of the genome of mainland Asians and Native Americans came from Denisovans. Finally, scientists discovered the Denisovans also interbred with another unknown lineage of the Homo tree which split from our Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestors between four million and 900,000 years ago.

The Denisovan story also came into play with the analysis of the oldest human DNA ever sequenced. The 400,000 year old genetic material came from Spain eclipsing the previous oldest genome by 300,000 years. Scientists were surprised to find the specimen's closest relative was not Neanderthal as might be expected in western Europe, but Denisovan suggesting yet another unknown lineage of humans brought the genetic code from Asia.

Also, new human skulls excavated in the Republic of Georgia have researchers reevaluating some branches of the Homo family. The 1.8 million-year-old fossils show the same variation within a single population as within a number of Homo family members out of Africa previously thought to be distinct species suggesting that perhaps multiple species were, in fact, simply variants on Homo erectus, the earliest known, undisputed predecessor of us, Homo sapiens.

These, as well as other discoveries of 2013, point to an evolutionary history of people that may be more complex, but at the same time simpler than we once thought.

7. HIV vaccine

We don't hear a lot about HIV/AIDS any more. To some extent, I think, this is because it has become more akin to treatable chronic diseases such as Diabetes than the death sentence it once was.

That may also explain why the success of first phase clinical trials of an HIV vaccine developed in London, Ontario did not make anybody else's list except mine.

Despite the fact HIV/AIDS is now eminently preventable and treatable, it remains a massive problem in Africa, Asia and even a number of First Nations communities right here in Canada.

And, considering its means of transmission—next to breathing, food and water nothing is as compelling to human beings as sex—the only thing that has a chance of eradicating it is a reliable vaccine.

In December, the researchers led by Dr. Chil-Yong Kang at the University of Western Ontario got FDA approval to start human trials. I think it is a big deal and a great Canadian science story.


8. Scientists protest

Another Canadian story that got passed up by almost everybody else making top story lists was Canadian scientists protesting being muzzled by the Canadian government.

I have written quite a bit not only about scientists being muzzled, but government employees in general. Nothing gets out of Ottawa any more that is not on the official Conservative talking points agenda.

What is significant about this story, though, is that scientists actually left their labs and offices to do something about it. This is not something scientists do. The fact that so many of them felt compelled to activism and that scientific journals and editorials in foreign newspapers condemned the Canadian government for its anti-evidence policy-making is indicative that things are even worse than we think they are.

9. Patents overruled

In a landmark United States Supreme Court decision this year, the nine top American jurists unanimously ruled companies could not patent human genes. The very idea that corporations could, and have been for three decades, patent products of nature, particularly human genes, is, to me, outrageous.

Interestingly this story got a lot of attention this year because of movie star Angelina Jolie's decision to have a double mastectomy when a test developed by Myriad Genetics indicated she carries a defective gene that puts her at an abnormally high risk to develop breast cancer.

Myriad not only held a patent on the technology it developed, but on the gene itself, preventing other companies from creating their own tests and making the analysis out of reach for people who do not share Jolie's virtually unlimited resources.

Technically, this is not so much a science story as a science-related news story, but it makes my list because it is a triumph of justice over greed.

10. Russian meteor

In February, an extreme explosion occurred in the sky near the Russian town of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains injuring more than a thousand people and causing untold millions of dollars damage.

Scientists quickly determined it was a school bus-sized meteoroid, an event that occurs about once in a hundred years.

It was fascinating in a lot of ways, not the least of which was the fact that on the very same day scientists were expecting an asteroid (2012-DA14) to come within 27,500 kilometres of Earth. In astronomical terms that is a very near miss.

NASA, along with other space agencies, has made huge strides tracking "potentially hazardous asteroids" and other near-Earth objects (NEOs), but the Chelyabinsk meteor took everybody completely by surprise.

It was a big deal, but nothing compared to the 1,000 NEOs more than a kilometre wide currently identified, which represents only an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of what they think is lurking within striking distance.

I don't personally worry about these things; there's really not much we can do about it.

In October Russian authorities recovered the largest chunk yet of the meteor. At 570 kilograms it is one of the 10 largest meteorites ever found. I am hoping what studies of the rock find will wind up being another entry on a future top science stories list.


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