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10 Scientists Who Made a Difference in 2013

Deborah Persaud, virologist
Deborah Persaud, a virologist who helped to establish that a baby born with HIV had been cleared of the virus. (Image credit: Nature)

Whether it was developing stem cells from cloned human embryos or tracking down assault claims at archaeological field sites, scientists and people advocating science had a busy 2013.

To highlight some of these accomplishments, editors at the journal Nature selected 10 scientists and other people who they said made a difference in 2013. Below are more details about their picks and what readers can expect to see next from these researchers.

DNA defense for people?

Humans' biological histories and capability to reproduce are encoded in deoxyribonucleic acid, also known as DNA. Certain kinds of bacteria can slash the DNA in viruses for protection, leading researchers — such as neuroscientist Feng Zhang, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — to wonder whether similar DNA-nip-and-cut techniques could have applications in humans. In January, Zhang co-authored a paper published in Science (led by one of his graduate students, Le Cong), showing that their alteration process works in higher-level eukaryotic cells, which are found in plants and animals. Nature highlighted this finding because it could lead to DNA alteration treatments for diseases caused by genetic mutations, including the neurological disorder Huntington's. [DNA Decoded: Our Favorite Genome Sequences]

Open-source genomes

After the human set of genes (also known as the genome) was first decoded in 2003, it was hailed as a great discovery since the discovery would help researchers understand more about how the body works and potentially protect people against disease in the future. At the same time, however, some companies saw the potential to profit from the information by trying to claim patents on certain types of genes. As an adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, Tania Simoncelli targeted Myriad Genetics — a company with two patents related to genes that are linked to breast cancer — and helped the ACLU win in a case this June that reached the Supreme Court. The decision was called a landmark for medical civil liberties. Nature honored Simoncelli for her commitment to keeping the genetic code open to all.

Helping babies with HIV

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the predecessor to AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which steals the body's ability to fight against infection. (The disease can be fatal if not treated properly, but medical advances mean people with AIDS often live many years with the disease.)

Virologist Deborah Persaud of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, along with her collaborators Hannah Gay of the University of Mississippi and Katherine Luzuriaga of the University of Massachusetts, made headlines in 2013 when they announced that infants born with HIV may be curable. Gay treated a baby delivered to an HIV-positive woman in 2012 with powerful drugs hours after the delivery. The mother was advised to keep up the drug regimen after the birth, but at one checkup, Gay discovered the child had not received drugs for five months. Strangely, though, the child did not have any sign of HIV in tests. Persaud and Luzuriaga personally did several tests on the baby — including DNA tests to make sure the child was not accidentally switched at birth — and confirmed the discovery. While it's possible that the child could herald relief for HIV patients tired of taking their daily drugs, doctors say the treatment must be continued for now while they further consider the results.

Finding a second Earth

Astronomers have found thousands of potential exoplanets, but many of them are gas giants Jupiter's size or larger, or fall into a class called "super-Earths" of rocky planets that are bigger than our own. That's why a finding by a team led by Michel Mayor, an emeritus astronomer at the University

of Geneva in Switzerland, got so much attention: This year, his group found a planet that is close to Earth's density and size. While Kepler-78 is too hot for life (it's been called a "lava planet") its discovery shows that it is possible to find a planet like Earth's in a temperate zone around its star. Mayor, 71, said to Nature that such a discovery could happen within the next five years – and that he's planning to participate in that research when the time comes. [101 Stunning Images of Earth from Orbit]

Hunting a Russian asteroid's debris

Windows shattered and injuries occurred after a bus-size space rock broke up over Chelyabinsk, Russia on Feb. 15, 2013. The event caught the attention of Russian meteorite specialist Viktor Grokhovsky, a metallurgist at the Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg. He not only oversaw searches for debris that unearthed 700 meteorite fragments, but his calculations also led to an extraordinary find. In October, divers unearthed a coffee-table-size chunk of meteorite that broke through the ice of a lake just west of Chelyabinsk. The meteorite broke into three pieces when it was brought to the surface, overwhelming the scale that was on site and weighing in collectively at 1,250 lbs. (570 kilograms). [Space-y Tales: The 5 Strangest Meteorites]

A typhoon, and a diplomat's plea to address global warming

As the United Nations discussed climate change at a big meeting this past November, Naderev Saño was reeling from the news of devastating Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines.  Saño knew nothing of the fates of most of his family and friends back home, except for that his brother was alive and helping to recover dead victims of the storm. In a tearful statement covered internationally, he vowed to fast as the discussions proceeded. "What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness," said Saño, who led the Philippine delegation. He didn't eat for two weeks, until the representatives agreed to continue negotiating for another summit in Paris in 2015.

Successful offensive against avian flu

Chinese health authorities found themselves battling a new strain of avian flu in April called H7N9, which is passed from infected birds into humans. Hualan Chen, head of China’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory, and her team swiftly gathered 1,000 samples from areas ranging from farms to live markets, where poultry is sold alive to shoppers and killed onsite. They confirmed 20 positive matches, all emanating from live markets in Shanghai. After closing the markets, the number of cases plummeted. Chen's group has continued to study H7N9 and found it is easier to transmit it to humans than H5N1, another strain of avian flu that can kill. Chen also was part of a team that attracted criticism for creating a hybrid of H5N1 and H1N1 (best known for a 2009 pandemic) in the lab and publishing the results in Science. While some said there was a risk of a pandemic spreading if studied animals escaped, Chen said the work helps scientists better understand how the flu strains behave.

Creating cloned stem-cells

Shoukhrat Mitalipov has had an interest in creating stem cells from cloned embryos for a long time, but it took years of work to gain approvals. The reproductive biologist at Oregon Health

& Science University in Portland not only had to gain regulatory approval, but had to get a new lab built at his university; the federally funded one he was already using was not permitted to do the research. His first burst of research between October and December 2012 produced four cloned cell lines created by moving nuclei into donor eggs. He hastily published his results, leading to some issues with figures in the group's paper, but at least one other researcher trying to duplicate the work said the underlying research is good: "My sense is that some of the major conclusions in Mitalipov’s paper are likely to stand the test of time," said Dieter Egli of the New York Stem Cell Foundation in a quote published in Nature.

Stopping harassment in the field

After hearing that a friend had been sexually assaulted at a field site, anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, who works at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began posting anonymized stories of sexual harassment and abuse on a Scientific American blog. She then followed up that work with a Web-based survey of biological anthropologists, done in collaboration with three other researchers. The survey revealed that 59 percent of the 124 participants faced inappropriate sexual comments, and 18 percent had been harassed or assaulted while doing their work. An expanded survey of 666 participants in all types of fieldwork revealed similar results. Their work led to the American Anthropological Association announcing a no-tolerance policy for harassment, among other measures.

New type of solar cell

Amid rising energy costs, renewable energy is appealing to companies — as long as the costs of production are reasonable. Henry Snaith, a physicist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is part of a team that created a new process to make solar cells more efficient. Their design for perovskite semiconductors (published in Nature and Science) provides a cheaper alternative to traditional solar cells that are made of silicon, and is as easy to make as coating a glass plate with the ingredients. The company Snaith co-founded in 2010, Oxford Photovoltaics, hopes to commercialize similar technology by 2017.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a regular contributor to Live Science and, along with several other science publications. She is one of a handful of Canadian reporters who specializes in space reporting. Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Journalism, Science Concentration at Carleton University (Canada) and an M.Sc. Space Studies (distance) at the University of North Dakota. Elizabeth became a full-time freelancer after earning her M.Sc. in 2012. She reported on three space shuttle launches in person and once spent two weeks in an isolated Utah facility pretending to be a Martian.