Science’s Breakthrough of the Year: Watching evolution in action

Evolution has been the foundation and guiding theory of biology since Darwin gave the theory its proper scientific debut in 1859. But Darwin probably never dreamed that researchers in 2005 would still be uncovering new details about the nuts and bolts of his theory — how does evolution actually work in the world of influenza genes and chimpanzee genes and stickleback fish armor? Studies that follow evolution in action claim top honors as the Breakthrough of the Year, named by Science and its publisher AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

In 2005, scientists piled up new insights about evolution at the genetic level and the birth of species, including information that could help us lead healthier lives in the future. Ironically, these often-startling discoveries occurred in a year when backers of “intelligent design” and other opponents of evolution sought to renew challenges to this fundamental concept.

This milestone, plus nine other research advances, make up Science’s list of the top ten scientific developments in 2005, chosen for their profound implications for society and the advancement of science. Science’s Top Ten list appears in the 23 December 2005 issue of the journal Science.

Many of this year’s breakthrough studies followed evolution at the genetic level. In October this year, an international team of researchers unveiled a map of the chimpanzee genome. Scientists are already poring over the chimpanzee genome and another international effort, the biggest map to date of single-letter variations in the human genetic sequence, hoping to get a better glimpse of the human species’ evolutionary history. The two studies give scientists new material for studying conditions from AIDS to heart disease, and may lay the groundwork for a future of personalized genetic medicine.

This year’s sequencing of the 1918 pandemic flu virus could have a more immediate impact on medicine. The amazing story of flu genes preserved in permafrost and painstakingly reconstructed has a chilling coda: the deadly flu seems to have started out as purely a bird virus. Understanding the evolution of last century’s deadly bird flu may help us predict and cope with the current bird flu threat.

Other studies showed how small changes in DNA can trigger dramatic evolutionary events. Researchers found that a single genetic change can be all it takes to turn one species into many, as in the case of the Alaskan stickleback fish that lost its armor and evolved from an ocean-loving species to a variety of landlocked lake dwellers.

Beyond the genome, researchers watched evolution in action among a number of animals, from caterpillars to crickets, and found that behavioral differences such as what to eat and when to mate may be enough to turn a single population into two species. These painstaking observations and other experiments showed that evolutionary studies are as relevant to 2005 as they were to 1859.

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