Scientists List 2011's Most Fascinating Discoveries
Putting together the pieces.
CREDIT: pixeldreams.eu, Shutterstock
Sometimes the science news that grabs headlines isn't the same news that piques the interest of working scientists. As part of our year-end round-up, LiveScience asked researchers to tell us what they considered the most interesting science stories of 2011 and why. Here's what they wrote back.
Michael Mann, climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University:
"That's a tough one. But I think I'd have to go with a body of work – several studies – establishing a more definitive link between climate change and certain types of weather extremes (heat waves and intense rainfall events/flooding), and studies by Stefan Rahmstorf, Tad Pfeffer and others suggesting a significant upward revision of projected sea level rise this century relative to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4) estimates, with the latest studies suggesting that 6 feet (1.8 meters) of global sea level rise under business-as-usual emissions is not out of the question.
"As for science as a whole, there are many candidates, but I guess as a closet physicist (I was all but dissertation in theoretical physics) I've got to go with the recently reported possible glimpse of the Higgs boson. If it holds up, it will be a hard-fought victory for modern science, showing how the bold predictions of our working theoretical framework (in this case, the standard model) have been vindicated by a long-elusive measurement.
"I would contrast that with the claims, earlier this year, of measurements of super-relativistic neutrino velocities. That was a bold claim that defied our theoretical framework (special relatively) but looks unlikely to hold up, given some of the problems that have been noted in the experimental design."
Scott Stoltenberg, behavioral genetics researcher at University of Nebraska, Lincoln:
"One of the more interesting studies published in 2011 demonstrated that an imprinted gene influences social behavior. Imprinting is a mechanism by which gene expression is regulated in offspring and depends on which parent contributed a particular allele, or variant. For example, in a paternally imprinted gene, only the copy inherited from the father is expressed in the offspring, while the copy inherited from the mother is not expressed.
"Alastair Garfield and colleagues reported evidence [Jan. 27 in the journal Nature] that a gene involved in cellular signaling and that expressed in the brain, called Grb10, is only expressed from the paternal allele and that this gene influenced social dominance in mice. This study is the first report of an imprinted gene influencing social behavior and indicates that parent-of-origin effects need to be considered when studying the genetic architecture of behaviors. Such effects are likely part of the reason why advances in understanding human behavior genetics are so difficult to achieve. These results are exciting in that they provide a glimpse into the complex pathways from genes to behavior."
Kristina Killgrove, anthropologist at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:
"In the fall of 2011, an international team of anthropologists published two key papers about the Black Death, a pandemic that raged in Europe in the mid-14th century, killing up to half of the population. Using teeth and bones from skeletons buried in the East Smithfield cemetery in London, Kirsten Bos, Verena Schuenemann and their research team successfully extracted DNA from 99 people and found the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis in 20 of them. The team also reconstructed the entire genome of Y. pestis, making history by being the first to fully sequence an ancient pathogen. The ancient Y. pestis genome differed only slightly from the modern version and suggested that the strains of plague that affect humans today all evolved from the Black Death pathogen. Yet today’s plague is not as virulent, and the researchers suggest that environmental or social factors such as climate, crop failure and an immunocompromised population may have resulted in large-scale deaths from the disease.
"Plague is not a disease of the past; recent outbreaks have occurred in the Americas, and the World Health Organization lists plague as a re-emerging disease. The work of Bos and Schuenemann this year shows that Y. pestis was evolving, even within the span of the Black Death pandemic, but that the ancient and modern pathogens are still very similar. With contemporary medical knowledge, a modern-day Black Death is not likely, but with pathogens mutating and evolving constantly, something other than Y. pestis may result in a new pandemic.
"Molecular techniques such as those employed by Bos and Schuenemann are paving the way for a better understanding not only of the evolution of diseases like syphilis and tuberculosis but also of the behavior of pathogens in modern pandemics."
Stephen Sterns, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University:
"I think the acceleration in the discovery of potentially habitable planets is the biggest story of the year. If we find life on other planets, as now seems increasingly likely, it will have enormous consequences for our view of our place in the universe. If we can actually study it, we will learn a lot about our own biology by comparing it to one that evolved independently."
Matt Sponheimer, anthropologist at University of Colorado, Boulder:
"One of the big controversies that has been playing out in 2011 is what were the environments in which early hominin lived. There has been something of a fight between the Tim White and Thure Cerling groups over this, with the last salvo being a 2011 paper by Cerling, et al. White, et al. had been pushing for closed, even forested environments, while Cerling, et al. are pushing for quite open and probably very dry environments. These scenarios have very important implications for our understanding of human evolution." [Top 10 Mysteries of the First Humans]
Zen Faulkes, brain, behavior and evolution researcher at University of Texas, Pan American:
"We are making headway in using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans to make crude predictions about what people 'think.' Lots of people are investigating the neural bases of deception, and from this, people have been thinking about whether fMRI could be used as a lie detector. This idea is so common now that it was even featured on 'MythBusters.'
"This paper showed a very simple way to 'beat the machine.' It's important because it shows that this fast-moving and exciting field of neuroscience is still very much at the basic research stage. It shouldn't be rushed out of the lab into law enforcement and intelligence communities yet."
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