Time’s Top 10 Scientific Discoveries (2007)

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#1. Stem Cell Breakthroughs Correction Appended: Dec. 11, 2007 In November, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and molecular biologist James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin reported that they had reprogrammed regular skin cells to behave just like embryonic stem cells. The breakthrough may someday allow scientists to create stem cells without destroying embryos — sidestepping the sticky ethical issues and opposition from the U.S. government that surround embryonic stem-cell research — but that day is still a ways off. Regarding his achievement, Thomson wrote in the Washington Post: “[It] changes both everything and nothing at all.” His and Yamanaka’s work is still in its early stages, and it’s unclear whether reprogrammed skin cells will turn out to be as useful as embryonic stem cells; for now, stem-cell experts agree that embryonic research must continue. Indeed, just a week before the researchers’ papers were published in Cell and Science, scientists in Portland reported that they had for the first time cloned embryonic stem cells from monkeys — another step closer to human stem-cell cloning. None of the research has yet translated to usable therapies, but for the millions of patients for whom this work holds promise, science just took a big turn for the better. The original version of this story incorrectly stated that scientists in Seattle had cloned embryonic stem cells from monkeys. In fact, the scientists were working at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

#2. Human Mapped

In September physiologist and scientific maverick J. Craig Venter bared his genetic soul for the world to see. Along with researchers at his Maryland-based J. Craig Venter Institute and other institutions, Venter published his entire “diploid” genetic sequence, or all the DNA in both sets of chromosomes inherited from each of his parents — the first such genome ever published of a single person. Venter’s feat brought science one step closer to the era of personalized medicine — and to being able to trace the roots of our genetic variations. It may not help to know which parent to blame for our bald pates or bifocals, but when it comes to more serious health risks, like heart disease and breast cancer, the stakes are higher.

#3. Brightest Supernova Recorded

Astronomers from University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Texas reported the largest and brightest stellar explosion, or supernova, ever observed. It was the first time scientists saw the death of a star as large as SN 2006gy, which was approximately 100 to 200 times the size of the sun — only about a dozen of the 400 billion stars in the Milky Way are estimated to be this massive. SN 2006gy collapsed into a black hole and exploded in a galaxy 240 million light years away, and was first spotted by a Texas grad student in 2006. By the time researchers published their paper in The Astrophysical Journal in May, the supernova had been observed in the sky for eight straight months. Astronomers believe SN 2006gy may offer clues to the spectacular way huge stars died in the early days of the universe — by converting some of their radiation into matter and antimatter particles, triggering a thermonuclear blast — and to the way a much closer big star, Eta Carinae, could explode soon, putting on the most brilliant night sky show modern astronomers will have ever seen.

#4. Hundreds of New Species

A newly discovered Antarctic male pycnogonid bearing its eggs, a marine distant relative of spiders.
Scientists announced in the journal Nature this May that they had discovered 700 new species of organisms — including carnivorous sponges and giant sea spiders — some 2,300 ft. to 19,700 ft. (700 m to 6,000 m) down in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica. Scientists also reported the identification of 24 new species in an isolated area of Suriname, where the exploration for bauxite, which is used to make aluminum, led to the discovery of 12 dung beetles, an ant species, six species of fish and five new frogs, including one with fluorescent purple markings. Other fauna finds include a legless amphibian near Goa, India; 11 new species of plants and animals in central Vietnam’s tropical “green” corridor; a new monkey in Uganda; a sucker-footed bat in Madagascar; a clouded leopard in Sumatra and Borneo, and a sea cucumber off the coast of Taiwan, nicknamed “Little Strawberry.”

#5. Building a Human Heart Valve

The World Heath Organization estimates that some 600,000 people around the world will need replacement heart valves within the next three years. British scientists delivered those patients some hopeful news: A team of researchers led by Dr. Magdi Yacoub of the Imperial College of London saw 10 years of work come to fruition this spring, when they grew bone marrow stem cells into functioning human heart-valve tissue. Yacoub hopes that the tissue can be grown into the shape of a heart valve using a special collagen scaffolding. Yacoub’s advancements build on the ongoing efforts of scientists around the world to grow new heart valves and other body parts. If Yacoub’s tissue holds up in animal trials, he estimates it could be used in human heart-valve transplant patients within 3 to 5 years.

#6. “Hot Jupiters” Discovered

This October, British scientists identified three new planets outside our own Solar System, as part of an ongoing search for Earth-like exoplanets called the Wide Area Search for Planets, or WASP. The new planets, named WASP-3, WASP-4 and WASP-5, are about the size of Jupiter, and orbit so close to their suns that their surface temperature reaches some 2,000°C. That rules out the possibility of life on these “hot Jupiters,” but scientists surmise that other Earth-sized planets may be making cooler, longer orbits around those same suns.
#7. A Big Birdlike Dinosaur

Writing in the journal Nature in June, Chinese scientists reported the discovery of the skeleton of an enormous, birdlike dinosaur that lived 70 million years ago. The paleontologists, working in Inner Mongolia, said the 3,000-lb. dinosaur’s surprisingly avian qualities — such as longer and more slender limbs — challenged the widely accepted assumption that carnivorous dinosaurs got smaller as they got more birdlike. But its size aside — having died as a young adult, it probably could have grown even larger — Gigantoraptor erlianensis doesn’t refute the theory that two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs are the ancient ancestors of modern birds.

#8. Man’s Migration Out of Africa

Early this year, an international team of scientists announced that analysis of a skull discovered in South Africa in 1952 revealed the first fossil evidence that modern humans left Africa between 65,000 and 25,000 years ago. Scientists determined the age of the skull, unearthed near Hofmeyr, South Africa, by testing the levels of radiation in sand that had filled the braincase. They figured it was about 36,000 years old — give or take 3,000 years — and matched skulls found in Europe, eastern Asia and Australia, in age and appearance, which supports the theory that modern man originated in sub-Saharan Africa and fanned out from there.

#9. The World’s Oldest Animal

In October, researchers from Bangor University in Wales were trawling an ocean shelf off the coast of north Iceland when they stumbled on what is believed to be the world’s oldest living animal: a 405 year-old clam. Or it was living, until researchers had to kill it to determine the clam’s age by studying rings on its shell. The clam species, the Arctica Atlantica, is particularly long lived — it has been known to survive some 200 and 300 years — and this particular specimen spent its protracted life burrowed in the sand 262 feet under water. When it first lodged itself down there, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was on stage at the Globe Theater, and the English were setting up camp in North America.

#10. Real-Life Kryptonite

In April, geologists in Serbia dug up a white, powdery mineral that they weren’t sure what to make of. They turned it over to Chris Stanley, a mineralologist at London’s Natural History Museum, who discovered that it had the same chemistry — sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide — as the fictional kryptonite, the green glowing rock that, aside from Lois Lane, is Superman’s only weakness. Its chemical make-up was revealed in the 2006 film Superman Returns in which villain Lex Luthor writes the formula on a box of rocks he steals from a museum. The real-life substance will be called jadarite, after the area of Serbia in which it was discovered. It can’t be called kryptonite, alas, because krypton, the gas, is already a real element.

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