Top 10 scientific breakthroughs of 2010

Just what it says up there.


Gender effects on disease?

Here is an interesting theory: noting that certain classes of diseases, including allergies and autoimmune problems, are more prevalent amongst women, researchers in the US are proposing that traditional gender roles have a part to play in limiting the exposure of girls to immune-system ‘challenges’ early in life.

Noting that boys are more likely to be encouraged to play actively while girls tend to be supervised during indoor play and prevented from getting dirty, they suggest that the variation in numbers and kinds of micro-organisms that children encounter is significant.

We’ve heard these ideas before, and the study’s authors are not suggesting that girls should be eating a spoonful of dirt in the backyard. However, this is a trend that they argue is important enough, and notable elsewhere in the world where rapid social change has been observed, that it deserves further consideration in studies of epidemiology.

More here. (Oregon State University)

Farmer needs a … microbe?

This week sees the observation of farming by Dictyostelium discoideum, a species of amoeba.

image courtesy of M. J. Grimson and R. L. Blanton, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA via Journal of Cell Science

This amoeba is well-known for another curious behaviour: colonies of these organisms will form a fruiting body to produce spores when conditions become hostile. The spores are released to spread the organisms’ chances of survival further afield. In this instance, the amoeba was shown to ‘farm’ the bacteria that constitutes their food. This is agriculture! By microbes!!! Amazing.

More explanation at theĀ BBC Science & Tech site.

Via Slashdot.

Bacterial arms race

Microbiologists have managed to ‘force’ bacteria to create a new antibiotic in a test-tube-based arms race.


Genetic studies of a bacteria species called Rhodococcus, normally found in soil, revealed large amounts of latent (or potential) proteins coded for in its genome. Some of these sequences displayed an intriguing similarity to existing chemicals, including pigments and toxins. However, the bacteria weren’t expressing these products…

So they were put into a hostile situation – a petri dish with a competing bacterial species. The rhodococcus responded by expressing a latent antibiotic and wiping out the competition!

An excellent example of the scientific method: careful observation and creative testing which achieves a serendipitous outcome.

Iron-fertilized, carbon-eating oceans

Regardless of whether the oceans boil away in 7.6 billion years or not, we have a real-life crisis developing right now in the form of global warming. Or, as some would rather: ‘climate change’. Doesn’t sound so scary then…

One set of techniques to combat the rise of greenhouse gases is geo-sequestration – basically, sticking the CO2 underground – and there are lots of different ways proposed to accomplish this.

A series of articles is currently being posted that explains the process, benefits and side-effects of a geo-seq method called ocean iron-fertilization which uses excess iron in sea-water to promote the growth of plankton that use CO2 (like plants) and drag it down to the ocean bottom in an organic form.

The articles are long and can get a bit technical – although there are some fantastic diagrams to help along the way – so I’ll leave the final word to a better journalist than I:

You need to know three things … One, putting iron in the ocean does increase plankton numbers. Two, scientists don’t really have any idea how much of the carbon the organisms eat actually drops from the surface into the depths, which is the key to sequestration. It could be anywhere from 2-50 percent, which is almost like saying, “It could work or it could not work.” Three, the leading scientists in the field don’t have enough confidence to say that ocean iron fertilization could have any real impact on stopping or even slow climate change.

Still looking for a solution, then.