By: Elisavet Serti, PhD
Science journal publishes Top 10 Scientific Breakthroughs of 2014
On the 19th of December issue of Science, the editors listed the Rosetta spacecraft and its preliminary results as the most important scientific breakthrough of 2014. This spacecraft became known for catching up with the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko beyond Mars last August. Rosetta’s short-lived lander, known as Philae, managed to touch down on the side of the comet next to a cliff, far from the initial targeted spot. The absence of adequate sunlight that would recharge its batteries gave Philae only 57 hours to collect data before its expiration. The importance of this first-ever soft landing of a spacecraft on a comet was emotional and largely symbolic since 80% of the scientific data of this mission will be generated from Philae’s mother ship, Rosetta, that will orbit around the comet throughout 2015. With this mission, scientists want to understand how comets are altered while approaching the sun and also how comets formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago.
This annual list of groundbreaking scientific achievements includes advances in medicine, robotics, synthetic biology and paleontology. Interestingly, the visitors to Science’s website picked the impressive genetic achievement of incorporating two additional letters into E.coli ’s genetic code, as the top scientific breakthrough for 2014. Two researchers managed to engineer the bacterial DNA in a novel way, which includes a pair of lab-synthesized nucleotides: X and Y. These two nucleotides don’t code for anything and because they do not exist in nature, the engineered bacteria would not be able to replicate and pass on their genetic material to any offspring. The two researchers aim to use X and Y for the encoding of artificial amino acids, beyond the 20 natural ones that are encoded by the nucleotides of the “normal” DNA, that would lead to artificial protein products. (Eric Hand and Robert F. Service, Science).
Federal Research Programs
National Children’s Study program is cancelled after 14 years
The National Children’s Study (NCS) was initiated in the late 1990’s by US pediatricians and other scientists that initiated a plan to follow a cohort of 100,000 children from birth to age 21, generating an unprecedented amount of biological specimens and clinical data of invaluable scientific potential. The main aim of this study was to identify the factors that shape child development and to understand how these factors lead to disease phenotypes. The Congress approved the project’s budget in 2000 and the NCS Program Office was established at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2003 aiming to recruit a representative sample of 100,000 pregnant women from 100 states in the largest longitudinal study of its kind in the United States.
In 2007, the initial funding of $70 million launched the first NCS centers that managed to enroll 5700 children. The recruitment plan proved to be inadequate. When the costs rose to $6.9 billion, the NCS program officers decided to close the NCS centers and rely on large contractors to run the projects. These changes were criticized by a large number of researchers, and the consequent review that was ruled by the Congress concluded that although the NCS had great potential, there were problems with its design and its management. In addition, there was no specific protocol for the study and the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director agreed with this review stating that the NCS “as currently outlined, is not feasible.” After these findings, Dr Francis Collins, the NIH director, decided to cancel the study and to close the NCS program office on December 2014. However, all existing data and biospecimens will be made available to outside researchers and the NCS funds will be redistributed to NIH institutes for related activities so that there is still potential for a positive outcome from this otherwise brilliant initiative. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)
Should cancer patients blame their bad luck?
Despite the large emphasis placed on gene heredity or risky habits like smoking on cancer risks, random mutations that occur during ordinary cell division are responsible for the two-thirds of cancer incidence of various types (22 out of 31 cancer types). These random mutations prove to be harmful if they affect the expression of cancer-related genes, known as oncogenes or tumor-suppressor genes, leading to tumor formation. As expected, it was observed that tissues that undergo a greater number of divisions were more prone to tumors since the probability of mutations is elevated. This means that most cancer patients could simply blame their biological bad luck and not their lifestyle or their genetic background. However, there are 9 cancer types, including colorectal, skin and lung cancer, which are heavily influenced by heredity and environmental factors like smoking, prolonged sun exposure or exposure to carcinogens, thus verifying the importance of these factors in carcinogenesis. (Will Dunham, Reuters)
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