New frontiers: a preview of 2006's big science stories

From rockets bearing stardust to the secrets of evolution, the holy grail of clean nuclear power and the genetic basis of common diseases


IN THE LAB

By Sanjida O'Connell

This year one of Europe's most discredited biologists may be vindicated: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, born in 1744, worked as an assistant botanist before writing a treatise on evolution, published in 1809. His theory, disparagingly referred to as Lamarckism, was that if animals used a structure or organ it would increase in size and that this change could be inherited by future generations. The theory was parodied by the idea that a blacksmith would pass his biceps on to his sons.

For several decades now scientists have debated whether nature, our genes, or nurture, the environment, has the most impact, but this year we may discover that there was a kernel of truth in Lamarck's ideas.

Professor Marcus Pembrey of the Institute of Child Health, University College London, and director of genetics at Bristol-based Children of the 90s, has suggested a third way in which evolution might work. So called "environmental inheritance" is where a man or a woman's life experiences may affect their sperm or eggs, altering the genes passed on to their children.

Research from Umei University, Sweden, and the Children of the 90s study, which has followed 14,000 parents and children since 1991, has shown promising developments in this area. Its hoped that new research will determine whether and how the environment can influence genes and thus alter evolution.

Professor Stephen Minger, of the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases and King's College, London, predicts breakthroughs in stem cell research in 2006. The field is in flux after allegations that the claims of Professor Hwang Woo-suk, of South Korea, to have created cloned human cells are untrue.

But Professor Minger hopes advances will still take place, enabling scientists to turn embryonic stem cells into the type we need for therapeutic purposes. The US may grant approval for stem cell therapy research this year, and China and Korea are hoping to clone pandas and the Korean tiger.

In medicine it's predicted that there will be a major push to defeat malaria. The disease kills some 2.7 million people annually worldwide, 75 per cent of whom are children in Africa. At the tail end of 2005 a team from the Washington-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute published research revealing one of the keys to the ability of the malaria parasite to evade the human immune system. It is hoped further research will uncover more of the parasite's tricks.

And in the second half of 2006 two new anti-malarials will be released. Both are known as ACTs (artemisinin-based combination therapies). They should be easier to use, 50 per cent less expensive than current ACTs, and will not be patented.

"Today very few patients are receiving treatment," says Dr Unni Karunakara, medical director of the Médecins Sans Frontières Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "The problem in tackling malaria is no longer medical, technical, or scientific - it is political."

At home, the Government is showing increasing interest in nuclear power in spite of the cost and safety concerns. However, a recent development could lead to safer, greener nuclear fuel. Currently, nuclear power splits the atom (fission), but fusion (the joining of two atoms), which occurs on the sun, will begin to be investigated by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Construction of the site, in the South of France and funded by the European Union, America, China, India, Japan, Russia and Korea, starts this year. "It's a major step forward," says Matin Durrani, editor of Physics World. "The project has spent years on the drawing board."

SPACE

By Peter Bond

In many respects 2006 may be regarded as "the year of the Sun", with two solar eclipses and the scheduled launches of three state-of-the-art solar observatories.

On 29 March the Moon will pass in front of the Sun and turn day into night for up to four minutes over a swathe of North Africa, Turkey and central Asia. Unfortunately for all UK residents, the eclipse will only be partial, resembling a sizeable bite taken out of the Sun's southern hemisphere, but anyone willing to travel to the eastern Mediterranean may well enjoy the experience of a lifetime.

The other solar eclipse, over the South Atlantic on 22 September, is not visible from the UK. The Moon will not cover the entire Sun, and a bright ring will surround the black lunar disk.

Although scientists' understanding of the Sun has been revolutionised by spacecraft observations over the past decade, fresh reinforcements are badly needed. The most advanced of these is the Solar-TErrestrial RElations Observatory (Stereo - below). This will use two spacecraft to create the first 3D images of solar eruptions and clouds of electrified gas. Meanwhile the Japanese Solar-B mission will make the first detailed observations from space of the magnetic fields that power solar storms.

The year should get off to a flying start with two "firsts". On 15 January the Stardust spacecraft should return to Earth with a cargo of interstellar particles and material from a comet. After more than seven years and billions of miles, Stardust will provide samples of the fundamental building blocks that pervaded our Solar System 4.6bn years ago.

The long-awaited exploration of the frozen regions on the outskirts of the Solar System should begin in mid-January, when Nasa's New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to blast off on a never-ending voyage among the stars. The fastest spacecraft ever to leave the Earth, New Horizons will pick up even more speed as it sweeps by Jupiter in 2007, eventually becoming the first robotic ambassador to explore the ninth planet, Pluto, and its moon, Charon.

The European Space Agency's Venus Express will arrive at the hottest planet in the Solar System during early April. Scientists will be hoping the flight will solve some of the mysteries of the evening star's runaway greenhouse effect, its super-hurricane-force winds and dense clouds.

Four orbiters and two surface rovers will explore Mars in unprecedented detail. Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will arrive in March. It carries six instruments for examining the planet's surface, atmosphere and subsurface.

The Cassini spacecraft continues to send back awe-inspiring images from Saturn. Further discoveries can be expected.

This year will be critical for the nations involved in human spaceflight. Nasa expects to launch the 115th shuttle mission, only the second to fly since the loss of Columbia in 2003. If all goes to plan and no life-threatening damage occurs to the shuttle's thermal protection, there should be a green light to continue assembly of the International Space Station. Any serious mishaps could result in disruption and recriminations, particularly in Europe and Japan, where multi-billion dollar hardware would be unusable.

GENETICS

By Simon Hadlington

The coming year promises to bring spectacular advances in our understanding of the genetic basis of many common diseases, predicts Professor Nick Hastie, director of the Medical Research Council's Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh.

Scientists are producing the first "catalogues" of genetic differences between individuals in an attempt to pinpoint those variations that might predispose someone to developing a particular disease. "About 500,000 variants have been identified that are common," says Professor Hastie. "People are looking at these variants in people with diseases and comparing them with control populations to try to identify which of these variants might make us more susceptible to common diseases."

This approach is called "genome-wide, high-density variant analysis". It requires sophisticated screening technologies together with populations of individuals who can be screened. "There have already been some very good results," says Professor Hastie. "This year, for example, it was discovered that a variation in a single gene puts people at greater risk of developing a disease called age-related macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness. That was a breakthrough."

However, most diseases arise through a combination of multiple genetic and environmental factors. So the data produced by genetic screening for most common diseases is likely to be extremely complex and require careful interpretation.

"With new chip technology we can look at 250,000 or 500,000 of these variants and see if they are at a higher or lower frequency in people with the disease," says Professor Hastie. "A lot of work has been done in the past on rare, inherited diseases, but the big challenge now is to identify the genetic risk factors associated with common diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers.

"I would hope that by this time next year, 10 or 20 of the most important major diseases will have been screened in this way and that a number of major risk factors will have been identified. By identifying these genes we should be able to reveal the biochemical and cellular pathways underlying the disease risk and this could lead to the development of new drug therapies."

Researchers in Cambridge, for example, are carrying out genetic analysis on women with breast cancer in an attempt to identify variations in the genome that might predispose individuals to the disease.

Screening of genetic variation in this way also promises to provide crucial information about the genetic components of behaviour. "It is hoped that this should help us to understand much more about traits such as anxiety," Professor Hastie says, "and I think we are going to learn a lot more about conditions such as dyslexia and autism."

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