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Last Updated: Friday, 23 December 2005, 09:07 GMT
Evolution takes science honours
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

Science magazine, 23 December 2005
Evolution is not just something that scientists study as an esoteric enterprise
Colin Norman, Science
Research into how evolution works has been named top science achievement of 2005, a year that also saw fierce debate erupt over "intelligent design".

The prestigious US journal Science publishes its top 10 list of major endeavours at the end of each year.

The number one spot was awarded jointly to several studies that illuminated the intricate workings of evolution.

The announcement comes in the same week that a US court banned the teaching of intelligent design in classrooms.

Adherents of intelligent design, or ID, maintain that many features of the Universe and of living things are too complex to have been the result of natural selection.

Instead, they argue, these phenomena must have been designed by a highly intelligent force.

The studies bestowed with the title "breakthrough of the year" by Science include the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome; recreation of the 1918 flu virus in a laboratory; and a study on European blackcap birds which demonstrated how two different populations can become two separate species.

Scientific merit

Colin Norman, news editor of Science, said the choice was based solely on the merits of the research, not the battle over intelligent design.

"I suppose if [that debate] influenced us at all, it was in the realisation that scientists tend to take for granted that evolution underpins modern biology," he told the BBC News website.

"The arguments about intelligent design just made us a little bit more aware of it."

Clint, Yerkes National Primate Research Center
The DNA sequenced came from a chimp called Clint
Mr Norman said he hoped the choice would send a message to scientists and the public: "Evolution is not just something that scientists study as an esoteric enterprise," he explained.

"It has very important implications for public health and for our understanding of who we are."

For example, by studying the differences between the human and chimpanzee genome, scientists may be able to pin down the genetic basis for many diseases. And studying the behaviour of the 1918 flu virus could help us combat the next avian influenza pandemic.

"The big recent development in evolutionary biology has obviously been the improved resolution in our understanding of genetics," commented Dr Mike Ritchie, of the school of biology at the University of St Andrews, UK.

"Where people have found a gene they think is involved in speciation, I can now go and look how it has evolved in 12 different species of fly, because we've got the genomes of all these species available on the web."

Robotic pioneers

The runner-up position in Science's list highlighted the advances made by robotic explorers in space, particularly the Huygens probe, which landed on Saturn's moon Titan on 14 January.

This was the furthest from Earth a spacecraft had touched down and represented a triumph for European space science, despite the loss of one of two data channels on the probe.

Surface of Titan, Esa
Huygens took this picture of the surface of Titan
The information gathered by Huygens as it parachuted through the thick atmosphere and finally settled on the moon's icy surface is shedding light on a world that may look a lot like Earth did 4.6 billion years ago.

"We're still deep in the analysis, but I do occasionally try to stand back and think about it in a detached way," Professor John Zarnecki, principal investigator on Huygens' surface science package, told the BBC news website.

"I've been in space research for about 30 years, and, I have to say, it still seems like science fiction.

"One is aware of the complexity, of the things that can go wrong no matter how well you design and prepare. It seems magical to me that these things usually do work."

The Open University professor said scientists would seek to find out how complicated the organic chemistry on Titan had become.

It is possible some of the chemical reactions that set the scene for the emergence of life on Earth could also be occurring on the saturnian moon.

Science magazine's breakthroughs of 2005

  • Winner: Evolution in action. Genome sequencing and painstaking field observations shed light on the intricacies of how evolution works.
  • Runner up: Planetary blitz. Europe's Huygens probe touched down on Saturn's moon Titan in January. It was joined by a fleet of other explorers, including Nasa's Deep Impact, which smashed a hole in a comet.
  • In bloom. Molecular biologists pinned down several of the molecular cues responsible for spring's vibrant burst of colour.
  • Neutron stars. Satellites and ground telescopes shed light on the violent behaviour of neutron stars; city-sized corpses of stars that pack matter into an extreme state.
  • Miswiring the brain. Researchers gained clues about the mechanisms of disorders such as schizophrenia, dyslexia and Tourette's syndrome.
  • Complicated Earth. Comparisons of rocks from Earth and outer space forced scientists to scrap long-held views of how our planet formed.
  • Protein portrait. Scientists got their best look yet at the molecular structure of a voltage-gated potassium channel.
  • Change of climate. More evidence implicating human activities in global warming was presented, the magazine said.
  • Systems biology. Molecular biologists are looking to engineering in order to understand the behaviour of complex systems.
  • Bienvenue Iter. After 18 months of wrangling, the $12bn International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) got a home: Cadarache in France.

'Life code' of chimps laid bare
31 Aug 05 |  Science/Nature
Titan mission 'resounding success'
15 Jan 05 |  Science/Nature
Swift catches first cosmic blasts
07 Jan 05 |  Science/Nature
Greenhouse gases 'do warm oceans'
17 Feb 05 |  Science/Nature
Arctic ice 'disappearing quickly'
28 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature
France gets nuclear fusion plant
28 Jun 05 |  Science/Nature
Mars water tops science honours
17 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature
Dark energy tops science class
20 Dec 03 |  Science/Nature

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