Washington, DC (11 December 1996) — In the 20 December 1996 issue of Science, the editors will announce their picks for the top ten research breakthroughs of 1996. Every December Science highlights scientific advances from the past 12 months that have made the greatest impact on science and society. This year’s report also offers the editors’ forecast for what will be the hottest scientific issues in 1997.
For 1996, the top “Breakthrough of the Year” is: New Weapons Against HIV. For years scientists have been frustrated in their efforts to combat AIDS. In 1996 new therapeutics, such as protease inhibitors, and basic research advances, such as the finding that natural polypeptide molecules called chemokines can suppress HIV, offered new weapons against the virus, and raised the possibility that HIV infection may one day become a chronic rather than fatal disease.
The editors also chose to honor nine runner-up innovations for 1996:
The Origins of Life: Researchers pushed to new heights our understanding of the origin of life, from the tantalizing possibility of life on Mars to the confirmation that there are three great domains of life, rather than the five kingdoms as classically taught.
Online Publishing: Almost every scholarly publication in the world jumped online this year, furthering the revolution in how scientists gather and disseminate information.
Prion Diseases: Previously blamed for the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak in British cows, this year prions (short for “protein infective agent”) were suspected ofjumping the species barrier and causing a new kind of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a crippling neurodegenerative disease in humans. In the midst of the fear, scientists debated whether proteins themselves can, in fact, transmit diseases, and whether they exist in different strains.
Lasers: Lasers are the workhorses of modern science, used in everything from surgery to surveying. In 1996, new laser materials and designs lit up the field on several fronts — advances that could make lasers even more versatile and economical.
Complete Genetic Sequence of Yeast: A major milestone for gene sequencing was passed in 1996: the first full sequence of a eukaryote (organisms, such as humans, whose cells have a membrane-bound nucleus). The lucky eukaryote? Baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The achievement will help scientists unravel the basic genetic toolkit for such common eukaryotic functions as cell division.
T Cell Structure: T cells that attack virus-infected cells are among the immune system’s most potent weapons. This year, two groups of researchers coaxed T cells to give up their last structural secret by obtaining the first three-dimensional image of the T cell receptors in action — bound to their target molecules. This kind of detailed structural knowledge should pave the way to new therapeutic drug designs.
Earth’s Inner Core: For a long time scientists thought that Earth’s inner core was static, but in 1996, after 30 years of data-gathering, researchers learned it actually spins faster than the rest of the planet. The work changes how we understand our planetary home.
Embryonic Positioning: In a developing animal embryo, each cell learns its exact location relative to other cells in order to give rise to the appropriate organ, tissue or nerve. This fundamental “biological positioning system” was further elucidated in 1996 by researchers who identified new molecules that carry and detect positional signals. Besides unmasking a process basic to life, these findings could lead to better treatment for cancers that arise when such signals go haywire.
Apoptosis Signaling: Every cell contains a built-in “death wish” that is triggered when the good of the organism demands it. This year, researchers made great headway in decoding this genetic self-destruct program, adding not only to basic science but also to our understanding of diseases in which apoptosis goes awry.
In a sidebar, Science editors propose six areas of scientific research that promise exciting results in 1997: cancer research; the search for matter’s most fundamental particles; programs that breach computer security codes; synthetic carbohydrates that may lead to new drugs; quantum computers; and high-energy x-rays that will enable scientists to peer with more accuracy at the processes of life. Another sidebar offers a scorecard on how last year’s Science forecast fared.
Formerly called “The Molecule of the Year,” this year’s “Breakthrough of the Year” is the eighth since Science inaugurated the feature in 1989. The editors of Science honor those advances that break new scientific ground, unite different scientific fields, and offer great potential benefits to society. This year, for the first time, the editors invited visitors to the magazine’s Web site to nominate candidates for “Breakthrough of the Year.” The ultimate decision, however, was made by the editors, led by Science’s editor-in-chief, Floyd E. Bloom, M.D., of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.