A list of these 10 "Insights of the Decade"
To celebrate the end of the current decade, Science news reporters and editors have taken a step back from their weekly reporting to take a broader look at 10 of the scientific insights that have changed the face of science since the dawn of the new millennium. A list of these 10 "Insights of the Decade" follows.
The Dark Genome: Genes used to get all the glory. Now, however, researchers recognize that these protein-coding regions of the genome account for just 1.5 percent of the whole. The rest of the genome, including small coding and non-coding RNAs—previously written off as "junk"—is proving to be just as important as the genes.
Precision Cosmology: Over the past decade, researchers have deduced a very precise recipe for the content of the universe, which consists of ordinary matter, dark matter and dark energy; as well as instructions for putting it all together. These advances have transformed cosmology into a precision science with a standard theory that now leaves very little wiggle room for other ideas.
Ancient Biomolecules: The realization that "biomolecules" like ancient DNA and collagen can survive for tens of thousands of years and provide important information about long-dead plants, animals and humans has provided a boon for paleontology. Analysis of these tiny time machines can now reveal anatomical adaptations that skeletal evidence simply can't provide, such as the color of a dinosaur's feathers or how woolly mammoths withstood the cold.
Water on Mars: Half a dozen missions to Mars over the past decade have provided clear evidence that the Red Planet once harbored enough water—either on it or just inside it—to alter rock formations and, possibly, sustain life. This Martian water was probably present around the time that life was beginning to appear on Earth, but there is still enough moisture on Mars today to encourage scientists seeking living, breathing microbes.
Reprogramming Cells: During the past decade, the notion that development is a one-way street has been turned on its head. Now, researchers have figured out how to "reprogram" fully developed cells into so-called pluripotent cells that regain their potential to become any type of cell in the body. This technique has already been used to make cell lines from patients with rare diseases, but ultimately, scientists hope to grow genetically matched replacement cells, tissues and organs.
The Microbiome: A major shift in the way we view the microbes and viruses that call the human body home has led researchers to the concept of the microbiome—or the collective genomes of the host and the other creatures that live on or inside it. Since 90 percent of the cells in our bodies are actually microbial, scientists are beginning to understand how significantly microbial genes can affect how much energy we absorb from our foods and how our immune systems respond to infections.
Exoplanets: In the year 2000, researchers were aware of just 26 planets outside our solar system. By 2010, that number had jumped to 502—and still counting. With emerging technologies, astronomers expect to find abundant Earth-like planets in the universe. But for now, the sizes and orbits of larger planets already discovered are revolutionizing scientists' understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve.
Inflammation: Not long ago, inflammation was known as the simple sidekick to our healing machinery, briefly setting in to help immune cells rebuild tissue damage caused by trauma or infection. Today, however, researchers believe that inflammation is also a driving force behind the chronic diseases that will eventually kill nearly all of us, including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes and obesity.
Metamaterials: By synthesizing materials with unconventional and tunable optical properties, physicists and engineers have pioneered new ways to guide and manipulate light, creating lenses that defy the fundamental limits on resolution. They've even begun constructing "cloaks" that can make an object invisible.
Climate Change: Over the past decade, researchers have solidified some fundamental facts surrounding global climate change: The world is warming, humans are behind the warming and the natural processes of the Earth are not likely to slow that warming. But, the next 10 years will determine how scientists and policymakers proceed with this vital information.