The journal Science's pick for breakthrough of the year in 2005 is "evolution in action," focusing on studies of how evolution works and how it affects lives today.
WASHINGTON The journal Science's pick for breakthrough of the year in 2005 is "evolution in action," focusing on studies of how evolution works and how it affects lives today.
Several research projects were discussed at meetings to choose the annual breakthrough winner.
"Then we realized they were all connected to evolution," said Colin J. Norman, news editor of Science. "We realized that if we put these together at the molecular level, it's been a banner year for evolutionary research. It shows that evolution underlies all of biology."
Bruce Alberts of the University of California, San Francisco, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, said the choice is "very timely. I like it."
On the journal's cover is an illustration of DNA, the blueprint for life that changes in the process of evolution.
Scattered across the DNA molecule are illustrations of people and animals, including a portrait of 19th century natural scientist Charles Darwin whose research drew attention to evolution through the process of natural selection.
It's been nearly 150 years since Darwin's findings were first published, and 2005 was also a major year for debate over his theory, culminating Tuesday with a federal judge's ruling that the religious belief called intelligent design can't be taught in science classes as an alternative to evolution.
There are also battles over teaching evolution underway in Kansas and Georgia, and at one point President Bush supported teaching intelligent design alongside evolution, although he has not commented on the court ruling.
The challenges were not the reason evolution was picked as the science story of the year, Norman said, "we chose this on its merits."
Three areas of research were noted in particular.
-- The sequencing of the chimpanzee genome, allowing researchers to compare it with already sequenced human DNA. Only about 4 percent of the coding differs between the two close relatives.
"Somewhere in this catalog of difference lies the genetic blueprint for traits that make us human: sparse body hair, upright gait, the big and creative brain," the editors of Science wrote.
In addition, the journal added, humans are highly susceptible to AIDS, coronary heart disease, chronic viral hepatitis and malignant malarial infections. Chimps aren't, and studying the differences between could help pin down the genetic aspects of many such diseases.
-- The human haplotype map, being developed by an international team, catalogues the patterns of genetic variability among people. Researchers are looking for patterns that match with ailments such as diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease.
-- Research into the formation of new species as they evolve to differ from others.
In 2005, scientists found a type of warbler known as the European blackcap that was separating into groups with differing migration patterns.
Another study found European cornborers in the same field dividing into two types, one of which sticks to corn while the other eats hops and mugwort. The borers have developed different pheromones, scent chemicals that help them breed with only their own group.
And formerly ocean-living stickleback fish that were left stranded in lakes at the end of the last ice age have evolved into several different species.
That study was done by David Kingsley of Stanford University, who reported in March that 15 isolated populations of freshwater sticklebacks had all lost their bony armor through mutations in the same gene.
While scientists had previously shown evolution in biochemical processes, such as antibiotic resistance, some critics had argued that it would be impossible to evolve large changes in the forms of natural populations.
"That is obviously false," said Kingsley. "Sticklebacks with major changes in skeletal armor and fin structures are thriving in natural environments. And the major differences between forms can now be traced to particular genes."
Source: Associated Press