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Water on Mars Tops 2004's Biggest Science Stories

The discovery of water on Mars topped the list of 2004's biggest scientific stories, according to the annual list in Science magazine, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2004, the twin NASA robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, became the first geological field workers on Mars. Science magazine editor Donald Kennedy says the slow moving duo positioned on opposite sides of the planet captured the imagination of millions of earthlings.

"They landed successfully. They bounced," he said. "They came to rest, and they began exploring. And, what they discovered has added considerably to what we had already believed, namely that there was at an earlier time large amounts of water on Mars forming shallow seas that laid down salt as they evaporated. That enough water was retained in this surface ash on Mars to create iron compounds, little blueberries of iron-rich material. Then of course what is exciting about that is that it suggests a real possibility that life might have originated there, although we can find no evidence of it now."

The littlest human ranked second on the Science magazine list. A team of Australian and Indonesian anthropologists unearthed a skull and bones of several primitive individuals on the Indonesian island of Flores.

"That apparently were isolated on this island of Flores, and like many animals that are isolated on islands, gradually evolve into smaller and smaller sizes," Mr. Kennedy said. "These are truly tiny humans. They are only about a meter high and have very small brains. But they were found in association with some tools and it was obvious that they hunted very big pray. These were very recent fossils. They are only 18,000 years old, which in the span of geological time is just an eye blink."

Another headline in 2004 announced that South Korean researchers had cloned a human embryo, the first evidence that this reproductive technique could work with human cells. Science magazine editor Donald Kennedy says the goal was not to clone a human being.

"Their objective was to get a source of stem cells that could be used in various therapeutic applications, which has interested everybody in the stem cell business for several years now," he said.

Including the state of California, which in a statewide election passed a ballot initiative that will fund stem cell research even though the U.S. government had made a decision earlier in the year not to make new stem cell lines available.

During 2004, scientists also gathered more evidence of the continuing decline of many plant and animal species around the world. World Conservation Union data found 30 percent of all known amphibians to be threatened with extinction.

A compilation of ecological studies showed another alarming trend. Warming temperatures had pushed plants to flower earlier and birds and animals to move or migrate into new habitats. Donald Kennedy says this movement radically alters ecosystems and their inhabitants.

"There is a real concern about that because of course biological diversity contributes to the very valuable ecosystem services that come provided without charge to human populations, and we are likely to lose those services if the fall in biological diversity continues," he said.

2004 was a good year for genetic research. Scientists found that so-called junk DNA, the stretches of DNA found between the gene and a gene's protein coating, is essential to help the genes turn on at the right time and in the right place.

In other experiments researchers worked on a new way to identify life forms too small or too remote to see with the naked eye. Sequencing the genes in water from the ocean and from deep underground scientists revealed new genes and genomes.

On the political front, the relationship between the White House and the scientific community was strained. Before the presidential election, sixty Nobel laureates accused the Bush administration of favoring ideology over science.

The scientists strongly disagreed with the administration's stem cell research and global warming policies. They were not alone. Scientists in Europe also staged rallies to protest government policies.

Despite this tension, public-private partnerships emerged as a formidable force for the development and delivery of medicines to third-world countries. Joint ventures by foundations, drug companies, academics and others were behind several major initiatives including a malaria trial and efforts to provide anti-HIV drugs.

Science editor Donald Kennedy was especially encouraged by the extent of international scientific collaboration. "A really large percentage that we publish in Science magazine comes from some other pair or trio of countries that have found a way to collaborate and get their work done over those distances," he said. Donald Kennedy worries that increasing complexity of the visa process in the United States could make this kind of cooperation more difficult.

Looking ahead, Mr. Kennedy predicts that anti-obesity drugs, insights into the genetic roots of human disease and close-up investigations of Saturn's moon, Titan, will be the hot scientific topics in 2005.