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Science’s breakthroughs of the year

Like most publications, our friends over at Science have compiled a “best of 2011” list — in their case setting out their top 10 breakthroughs of the year. (Don’t miss our own end-of-year special, featuring our newsmakers of the year and 2011’s best science photos).

We wrote about many of the stories on Science‘s list in our news coverage this year. So here is Nature’s take on Science’s breakthroughs of the year.

Number one on Science’s list was the discovery that antiretroviral treatments for HIV could double as prevention. The drugs, when given to those infected with the virus, not only help the patient, but also reduce transmission to their partners by up to 96%.

Japan’s Hayabusa probe returned samples of dust from the asteroid Itokawa (pictured), after a harrowing trip where nearly everything that could go wrong, did. The samples helped to settle the mystery about why asteroids are a different colour than most of the meteorites that fall to Earth (answer: the solar wind has discoloured the asteroids).

The extent to which our ancestors interbred with archaic humans, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, has become ever more clear over the past year. To the point where personal genomics companies can even tell you how Neanderthal you are.

This year we got our clearest look yet at the crystal structure of Photosystem II. Nature didn’t cover this as a news story, but we did publish the paper itself. Our own favourite crystal structure this year was that of the G-protein coupled receptor, a structure targeted by between one-third and one-half of all drugs.

The baffling variety of bacteria growing in our gut started to make a little more sense this year, when researchers found that our internal microbial communities fall into one of three broad “enterotypes” that seem to correlate with diet. The researchers behind this work have set up a website where you can have your gut bacteria sequenced and discuss health issues.

There were some promising early results from the clinical trials of the RTS,S malaria vaccine, but some troubling issues as well. It doesn’t seem to work as well as hoped, and many were uneasy about the decision to release partial results before the trial was concluded.

2011 has been the year of the exoplanet — one of our 10 newsmakers of the year is Sara Seager, a member of the Kepler space telescope science team that has identified more than 2,000 candidate exoplanets, as well as two Earth-like worlds. But some of the planets and solar systems found have been causing headaches for the theorists who try to explain how planets form.

Have we found the fountain of youth? Well, mice at least are getting close. Scientists found that mice purged of senescent cells — older cells that are still alive but have lost the ability to divide — stayed youthful for longer, although the overall length of their life didn’t change. We didn’t cover this in news, but our News & Views team did a great job of highlighting the importance of the work.

The last two breakthroughs, which we didn’t report on, were a range of insights into the evolution of the early Universe (such as this pristine cloud of hydrogen, which Science Now covered); and everybody’s favourite porous crystals, endlessly useful as catalysts and filters: yes, it’s the zeolites!

Image credit: JAXA/ISIS


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