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The discoveries of 2003: dark energy, the evolution of the Y chromosome and global warming

Paul Rincon, BBC News Online

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A series of breakthroughs in the quest to identify the nature of the mysterious contents of the universe reached the top of the list of the ten biggest developments in science for 2003. The winning discoveries provided further evidence that the universe is mostly composed of dark matter and dark energy.
The list of ten major developments, compiled by the scientific journal Science each year, is always controversial, and it turns out that the current one is no exception.

The second place was won by scientists, who identified genes for mental illnesses.

Studies, which found genes responsible for increasing the chance of their subjects suffering from schizophrenia, a tendency to depression and bipolar disorders, received a special mention.

Third place was awarded to authors of studies that show evidence of global warming.

"The naivete about global warming has reached a stage where it's pretty hard to deny what's going on," Don Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, told BBC News Online.

The articles included research that linked generally warm waters in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans to greenhouse gas products and research that showed increases in river currents that flow into the Arctic Ocean.

The Science news and editorial teams compiled the list of breakthroughs.

"We were looking for science, which would lead to new things. Not necessarily uses for the service of man, but new extensions of human knowledge," added Mr. Kennedy.

Regarding the winning breakthrough title, awarded to researchers who clarified the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the journal said: "This brings to an end a debate, which has lasted for decades, about the nature of the universe and confirms that our universe is much stranger than our wildest dreams."

The "harmonic" model of the universe suggests that over 70% of the universe consists of dark energy, 25% consists of dark matter and only 5% of normal matter. In this model, dark matter expands continuously due to the influence of dark energy.

In February, the WMAP satellite took the most detailed picture of the cosmic background radiation yet - a picture of the soft universe, when it was less than 400,000 years old.

In July, astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), which aims to map a million galaxies, published a research paper in which they based their information on galaxy clusters on the information from the WMAP microwave field.

They claim that their results prove beyond any doubt that dark energy must exist.

However, on Friday, December 12, an international group of astronomers claimed that data from the European Space Agency's XMN-Newton satellite cast doubt on the existence of dark energy.

The astronomers the amount of X-rays and their energy, which are emitted from eight distant galaxy clusters. They say that their results may imply that the density of matter in the universe is very high, contrary to the accepted harmonic model.

"To explain these results, it is necessary for the universe to contain a lot of matter, which leaves little room for dark energy," said Alain Blanchard of the Midi Pyrenees Observatory in France.

More complete details of the list of the ten breakthroughs:

Science magazine breakthroughs for 2003

1. Shedding light on the dark universe.
Information from telescopes and satellites reinforced the idea that the universe is mostly composed of dark matter and dark energy.
2. Decoding mental illness.
Researchers have identified genes that reliably increase a person's chance of genetic disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorders.
3. The effects of climate change.
Scientists have reported melting ice, floods, reduced plant fertility and different behavior of animals and plants.
4. Developments in the BNA.
Scientists have studied how small ribo nucleic acids (RNA) affect cell behavior, from initial development to gene expression.
5. Focusing on single molecules.
Collaborations between biologists and physicists have been able to grasp the actions of individual molecules inside the cell.
6. Starbursts and gamma rays.
Scientists have improved our understanding of the most energetic explosions in the universe: huge bursts of energy, called Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs).
7. Spontaneous egg and sperm cells.
The observation that embryonic stem cells can develop into sperm cells and egg cells may help scientists learn how different types of infertility occur.
8. Left materials.
Several research groups have confirmed the ability of certain smart materials to refract light in the "wrong" direction.
9. The independent Y chromosome.
The genetic sequence of the male Y chromosome revealed that it contains genes for replication. Hence, when a mutation occurs and a new gene is needed, a twin copy is ready for action.

10. Possible treatments for cancer.
In June, researchers announced that a drug that restricts the blood supply to tumors, when given in combination with chemotherapy in a large clinical trial, extended the lives of advanced colon cancer patients.

The 10 most significant breakthroughs in science in 2003 (and a link to the relevant article on the science website describing the discovery)

* 73% of the universe is "dark energy" that pushes galaxies apart
* Identifying genes that increase the chance of inheriting mental illnesses
* * Reports and studies confirm: the earth is indeed warming
* The effect of the tiny RNA molecules on the cell
* Description of the activity performed by one molecule inside the cell
* Confirmation of the connection between gamma ray bursts and supernovae
* Mouse stem cells develop into both sperm and eggs
* A special material is able to bend the light "in the wrong direction"
* The Y chromosome is able to repair itself on its own
* A new cancer treatment could extend the lives of patients
According to the American magazine "Science"

This year's discoveries: dark energy, the evolution of the Y chromosome and global warming (links

Yuval Dror, Haaretz, voila!
The "scientific breakthrough of 2003" is, according to the American science magazine "Science", the new evidence that sheds light on the structure of the universe. This evidence states that most of the universe is built neither of matter nor radiation, but of a mysterious force known as "dark energy", which acts like gravity - but in reverse. The rest of the breakthroughs that appear in the annual list are related to genetics, climate, molecular biology and more.

Don Kennedy, the magazine's editor, explained in an interview with the BBC network the criteria that guided his editors: "We were looking for scientific achievements that would lead to new things, not necessarily the kind of things that would lead to applications in the service of man, but achievements that expand human knowledge."

This year's scientific breakthrough was achieved thanks to satellite and telescope images, which recorded microwaves of the background radiation. These images show the light as seen in the first seconds after the big bang. The analysis of the images taught the researchers that only 4% of the universe is made of ordinary matter. The other components of the universe are a mystery. Thus, for example, 23% of the universe is made of "dark matter". The scientists claim that the substance consists of mysterious particles, and admit that at this stage they do not know how to explain their nature.

The scientific discovery is that in fact the remaining 73% of the universe is "dark energy", a force that pushes the galaxies away from each other - as opposed to gravity, which pulls them towards each other. This is a discovery that is a continuation of the discovery from 1998 - when the scientists provided the first proof that the universe is not contracting, but expanding. "The implications of the new discovery are simply stunning," says editor Kennedy. "The discovery eliminates a debate that lasted several decades regarding the nature of the universe and confirms that the universe is much stranger than we imagined."

The magazine "Science" chose nine additional discoveries, which are not ranked in order of importance. One of them is the product of a study that discovered a group of genes that increase the chance of the gene bearer inheriting the mental illnesses of his parents, including schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. Now the scientists are trying to understand how the genes disrupt the information processing system in the brain, which may lead to these diseases.

Other articles and studies included in the list of discoveries dealt with the climate, and finally confirmed that the Earth is warming. "The consensus around global warming has reached a point where it's hard to deny that something is happening," says Kennedy.

Another breakthrough that the magazine notes is related to research that found that mouse embryonic stem cells can develop in laboratory conditions into both sperm and eggs. The significance of this discovery is twofold: in the scientific field, the scientists hope that another source of sperm and especially eggs will be developed for the purposes of scientific research and that the knowledge gained will provide new insights regarding the causes of infertility. In the ethical field there are those who fear that in the future it will be possible to give birth to a child whose parents are embryonic stem cells, which have been transformed into sperm and egg in the laboratory and fertilized by scientists.

Another discovery is related to the Y chromosome. The analysis of the genetic sequence of the chromosome made it clear to scientists how the chromosome, found only in males, manages to repair itself even though it does not have a "partner" on the female side, like other chromosomes. It turns out that in the course of evolution, the Y chromosome has adapted features that distinguish it from the other chromosomes, and it contains a "backup copy" of itself - a kind of mirror image. If there is a change in the genetic sequence due to a mutation, the chromosome folds and one arm of the folded genetic sequence works to replace the defective genetic information found on the opposite arm.

Further progress has been made in the field of understanding the role of RNA (a key molecule in the inheritance process) and its effect on cell behavior, from its early stages of development to its role in gene expression. According to the magazine, understanding the role of RNA may contribute greatly to the development of drugs for diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis.

In the last year, studies were also published that dealt with "gamma ray bursts" - the most intense explosions in the universe, which release enormous radiation - and scientists were able to confirm the connection between gamma ray bursts and supernovae (explosions of stars).

For news at the BBC
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