December 27, 2007

2007: How Science Came Full Circle

Filling up
your car's fuel tank couldn't possibly have anything to do with artificial
organisms, food shortages or the latest superbug scourge. Or could it?

As the late
inventor of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, aptly noted, "The most
fundamental phenomenon in the universe is relationship."

Like a
scientific version of the popular game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,"
here we stroll through some of the top science stories of 2007, full circle.


The year
began with a bang—the sound of a 1,500-page
hitting the desks of government officials around the world, that is.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the updated manifesto,
which details the dangers
of global warming
resulting from humanity's carbon dioxide-producing love
affair with fossil fuels. Because rising seas, changing weather patterns and
worsening natural disasters don't comfort the people of planet Earth, they are …


energy-efficient light bulbs to hybrid cars—the sales of which are
in the United States—people seem to be buying into new ways of
reducing their environmental impact. Surveys suggest, however, that Europeans
are more
to take the green plunge than Americans.

consumers scan for enviro-friendly products and services, scientists occupy the
frontlines of developing the latest green
. One of the most popular so-called green technologies,
however, has turned into a …


derived from biological sources, called
, have enjoyed a 20-fold industry growth in the past decade. Truth
is, many only create an environmental stalemate or, paradoxically, cause more
planetary damage than filling up on plain old fossil fuel.

Ethanol "E85"
derived from corn, for example, trades increased ecological damage
caused by fertilizer runoff for reduced greenhouse gas emissions (although even
that claim is a matter of contention). Other experts contend that biofuels cut
into food supplies and exacerbate
world hunger

To feed
energy-hungry societies while trimming environmental impacts, some scientists
are looking to create their own …


J. Craig
Venter and his colleagues—in both academia and industry—are trying to design
artificial organisms
in hopes of dodging the environmental minefield of
fuel production.

One of
Venter's big dreams is to engineer microscopic critters able to efficiently
turn plants into fuel without the ecological impacts. This year, Venter came
one step closer to success by transplanting a basic microbe's genetic
instructions into a more complex microbe's body.

In addition
to working toward green fuel production, designer microbes might also help in
the development and production of medicine. Venter also envisions designing
custom viruses
to fight with fire with fire against …


As if
protesting their control by humans, more disease-causing microbes around the
planet are resisting antibiotic drugs—and are transforming into deadly

In the United States, a report showed that sometimes-deadly infections by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus
aureus (MRSA) bacteria are on the rise. Several small outbreaks also frightened
several communities
this year, when the bug attacked not only weakened
hospital patients, but seemingly healthy school kids.

But where
are these dangerous diseases coming from? Evolution is powering the process,
and experts think the increase in superbugs has as much to do with careless
antibiotic use as it does with the planet's …


By the
year's end, the world population will top 6.6 billon—that's 100 million new
bodies since last

As more
people cram into a fixed space, scientists expect worsening disease outbreaks, more
polluted natural resources, increased water shortages and animal

Perhaps the
most unsettling consequence, however, will be unchecked population growth's
feeding of …


In spite of
science's best efforts to develop radical new technologies to fight climate
change, more people on the planet translates to more greenhouse gas sources to

scientists think it's too
to take action to get back to where we started, but others have some
shred of hope.

non-experts have put money
on climate change's surprising
. Whatever the true odds of a planetary nightmare might be,
only time—and more scientific research—will tell.