Top Science Stories Of 2010 Include Neanderthal DNA

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The year 2010 was chock-full of interesting science. But with more than 700,000 scientific papers published, picking the top stories of the year is a daunting task.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

There were more than 700,000 scientific papers published this year. So choosing the top science stories of 2010 is a daunting task. Nevertheless, NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca boldly - or foolishly - agreed to do it. And he joins us to talk about his selections.

Now, I'm sure you did, in fact, ready 700,000 scientific papers this year.

JOE PALCA: Oh, yes. That's why I'm up at my desk most hours of the day, you know, staring at papers. No, I didn't. But I do think there's a couple of stories that we can talk about that are pretty important this year.

WERTHEIMER: Which were? What were they?

PALCA: Well, I think the first one that we should talk about is synthetic life, because it's not really what happened. There was an interesting paper where a guy named Craig Venter, and a group of people that he worked with, took two strains of bacteria. And just to keep them straight we're going to call them Bob and Ralph. OK?

WERTHEIMER: OK.

PALCA: And what Venter did was he made an exact copy of Bob's DNA. All the instructions that make Bob Bob. Then he removed the DNA from Ralph. So now Ralph has no genetic instructions. And then he put Bob's DNA into Ralph - and boom - Ralph turned into Bob.

WERTHEIMER: So he turned one species of bacteria into another?

PALCA: Yep.

WERTHEIMER: So that sounds more like a magic trick than artificial life.

PALCA: Right. And to tell you the truth, it's not a magic trick, it was a fantastic piece of biology. But it's not designing life. I mean, Bob already existed. He copied the DNA in Bob and got it to switch on in another bacteria species. But it's the start, and someday it might be possible to design a bacteria that will become the life form that you want.

WERTHEIMER: What else have you got?

PALCA: Well, I think the other really interesting story this year was the Neanderthal genome. And I think you just have to stop for a minute, and realize that scientists were able to take DNA from a 35,000-year-old bone and assemble it into three billion letters in the correct order, because the letters were all jumbled up.

I mean, there was chunks of DNA - 10, 20, 30 at a time. And they had to sequence these. They had to figure out which was Neanderthal and which was modern human, which was contamination. And they managed to put the whole thing together. It was a remarkable feat.

WERTHEIMER: Any interesting things in the world of physics, Joe?

PALCA: Yes, there was a very interesting paper in the world of quantum physics. Quantum physics is this weird thing where something can be in two places at once. And it's useful in describing how single atoms work. But it's not the way things work in the giant world that we're used to working in.

Now researchers in Santa Barbara have shown that you can actually have something that exhibits those quantum effects that's big enough to see with the naked eye.

WERTHEIMER: So does that mean you could make something out of it or do something with it, or do we just stand around and marvel?

PALCA: Well, no, no. The idea of quantum physics, scientists are very excited about, because one of the things you can do is make a quantum computer, which lets you do things much faster than you could in the on/off world of computing that we have today. This is a computing world that has millions of potential states and could be used to make problem solving much faster.

WERTHEIMER: So 700,000 studies, how do you know you didn't miss something?

PALCA: Well, it's almost certain I did miss something. But I wanted to make the small point that this year's Nobel Prize went to something called graphene. And the paper for grapheme was in 2004 in a major scientific journal and it got virtually no coverage. None of the major media talked about the discovery of something in 2004 that won the Nobel Prize six years later.

So there may be something out there this year thats going to win the Nobel Prize in six years, and Ill have to let you know.

WERTHEIMER: It's very peculiar that something becomes news six years after it was discovered, that maybe you could fill in a blank for me. What is graphene?

PALCA: It's just a single layer of carbon atoms and it was discovered basically by putting a piece of Scotch Tape on a pencil lead and pulling it off. And you wound up with single carbon atoms in a sheet. And it turns out to be very strong and conducts electricity, and it might have all sorts of uses. So it's really an apparently interesting thing.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca.

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