Sunday, December 20, 2009

Science Breakthrough of 2009

The journal Science has chosen the discovery of "Ardi", a 4.4-million-year-old skeleton pictured here, as the breakthrough of the year.

A sample of the News piece on Ardi:

...a 4.4-million-year-old female who shines bright new light on an obscure time in our past. Her discoverers named her species Ardipithecus ramidus, from the Afar words for "root" and "ground," to describe a ground-living ape near the root of the human family tree. Although some hominins are even older, Ardi is by far the most complete specimen of such antiquity. The 125 pieces of her skeleton include most of the skull and teeth, as well as the pelvis, hands, arms, legs, and feet.

....In the year of the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, it seems fitting that researchers finally broke through the 4-million-year barrier to understanding our origins. Models for our earliest ancestors can now be informed by plenty of fresh data and at least one body of hard evidence.

And you can watch the video here.

Among the "runners up" this year includes my favourite-- the discovery that the drug rapamycin increases life span. An excerpt from the story on rapamycin:

Doctors prescribe rapamycin to battle kidney cancer and to stymie rejection of transplanted organs. After the U.S. National Institute on Aging added the drug to its list of molecules that might increase rodent life span, the three U.S. labs that test such candidates started feeding rapamycin to mice when they were 600 days old, comparable to 60-year-old people. The rapamycin-rich diet added between 9% and 14% to the rodents' life span. Researchers had achieved similar feats in worms and flies, but the result was a first in mammals—and especially encouraging because the animals were already past their prime.

The drug's mechanism has scientists puzzled. Rapamycin curbs the TOR biochemical pathway, which is involved in everything from protein synthesis to cell division. However, the drug didn't thwart any specific cause of death: The mice suffered the full range of old-age infirmities such as ulcers and heart failure. And because the mice didn't become skinny, the researchers doubt that rapamycin works similarly to calorie restriction (CR)—an extreme diet that can increase longevity in mice and some other lab organisms—although other scientists think there might be a connection.