Fossil of early hominid heads Science's top 10 scientific advances of 2009

19:52, December 18, 2009      

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The research that brought to light the fossils of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominid species that lived 4.4 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia, has topped "Science"'s list of the most significant scientific breakthroughs in 2009.

The monumental discovery predates "Lucy" -- previously the most ancient partial skeleton of a hominid on record -- by more than one million years, and it brings researchers even closer to the last common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees.

The journal "Science" recognizes the Ardipithecus ramidus fossils, including the partial skeleton named "Ardi," as 2009's Breakthrough of the Year. They also identify nine other important scientific accomplishments of this past year in a top ten list, which are covered in a special news feature in the journal's Dec. 18 issue.

The Ardipithecus research "changes the way we think about early human evolution, and it represents the culmination of 15 years of painstaking, highly collaborative research by 47 scientists of diverse expertise from nine nations, who carefully analyzed 150,000 specimens of fossilized animals and plants," said Dr. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of "Science," in a related editorial.

Back in October, an international team of scientists offered this first comprehensive, peer-reviewed description of Ardipithecus. After analyzing the skull, teeth, pelvis, hands, feet, and other bones, they determined that Ardipithecus possessed a mix of "primitive" traits which it shared with its predecessors -- the apes of the Miocene epoch -- and "derived" traits, which it shared exclusively with later hominids.

However, many of its traits do not appear in modern-day Africanapes. One surprising conclusion, therefore, is that it is likely that the African apes have evolved extensively since that last common ancestor, which thus makes living chimpanzees and gorillas poor models for the last common ancestor and for understanding our own evolution since that time.

The first Ardipithecus fossils were actually excavated in 1994,but the team of researchers responsible for their discovery was careful not to hastily disclose the findings to the public. Instead, more than a decade of detailed analysis and documentation followed, as the experts sent their fossils to various laboratories around the world for evaluation.

The nine runners-up are:

Pulsars Detected by Fermi: NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope helped to identify previously unknown pulsars -- highly magnetized and rapidly rotating neutron stars -- and shed light onto their unique gamma-ray emissions.

Rapamycin: Researchers found that tinkering with a key signaling pathway produces life-extending benefits in mice -- the first such result ever achieved in mammals. The discovery was particularly remarkable because the treatment did not start until the mice were middle-aged.

Graphene: In a string of rapid-fire advances, scientists probed the properties of graphene -- highly conductive sheets of carbon atoms -- and started fashioning the material into experimental electronic devices.

Plant Survival: Scientists discovered the structure of a critical molecule that helps plants survive during droughts. This could help scientists design new ways to protect crops against prolonged dry periods, potentially improving crop yields worldwide.

Laser Tool: The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California unveiled the world's first X-ray laser, a powerful research tool capable of taking snapshots of chemical reactions in progress, altering the electronic structures of materials, and myriad other experiments spanning a wide range of scientific fields.

Gene Therapy Comeback: European and U.S. researchers made progress in treating a fatal brain disease, inherited blindness, and a severe immune disorder by developing new strategies involving gene therapy.

Monopoles: Physicists working with strange crystalline materials called spin ices created magnetic ripples that model the predicted behavior of "magnetic monopoles," or fundamental particles with only one magnetic pole.

LCROSS Finds Water on the Moon: In October, sensors aboard NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) detected water vapor and ice in the debris from a spent rocket stage that researchers deliberately crashed near the south pole of the Moon.

Hubble Repair: In May, a nearly flawless final repair mission by space shuttle astronauts gave the Hubble Space Telescope sharper vision and a new lease on life, resulting in its most spectacular images yet.

Source: Xinhua
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