Image: Science cover
Photoillustration by Chris Bickel and Kelly Buckheit  /  Science
Science's cover image symbolizes the host of genetic studies and field observations that have shed light on the mechanisms that drive Darwinian evolution. A model DNA molecule is emblazoned with species representing key advances of 2005, including a stickleback fish; the influenza virus; a European blackcap; a chimpanzee; a fruit fly; and three members of Homo sapiens, including Charles Darwin.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/22/2005 7:48:23 PM ET 2005-12-23T00:48:23

Two days after a federal judge delivered a heavy blow to the intelligent-design movement, the journal Science Thursday proclaimed that fresh evidence of evolution in action was the top scientific breakthrough of 2005.

In the annual roundup, the journal's editors pointed to wide-ranging research built on the foundations of Charles Darwin’s landmark 1859 work ”The Origin of Species” and the idea of natural selection. Among the highlights: a study that showed a mere 4 percent difference between human and chimpanzee DNA, and studies documenting the splits in species of birds, fish and caterpillars.

“Amid this outpouring of results, 2005 stands out as a banner year for uncovering the intricacies of how evolution actually proceeds,” the editors wrote. “Ironically, also this year, some segments of American society fought to dilute the teaching of even the basic facts of evolution.”

The journal’s editor in chief, Don Kennedy, acknowledged that this was a reference to the spread of intelligent-design claims, which contend some aspects of nature are so complex that they are best explained as the work of an unnamed creator rather than the result of random natural selection, as Darwin argued.

Opponents, including many scientists, argue that intelligent design is a thinly disguised version of creationism — a belief that the world was created by God as described in the Book of Genesis. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that creationism may not be taught in public-school science classes.

“I think what arouses the ire of scientists [about intelligent design] is ... the notion that it belongs in the same universe as scientific analysis,” Kennedy told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“It’s a hypothesis that’s not testable, and one of the important recognition factors for science and scientific ideas is the notion of testability, that you can go out and do an experiment and learn from it and change your idea,” said Kennedy. “That’s just not possible with a notion that’s as much a belief in spirituality as intelligent design is.”

Image: Clint the chimpanzee
Yerkes National Primate Research Center
Science's editors said September's publication of the chimpanzee genome — and its comparison with the human genome — ranked as "one of the most dramatic results" in the effort to reveal the laws of evolution in action. The genetic sample was taken from a chimpanzee named Clint, shown here.
Intelligent design came under review in two states this year: On Tuesday, a federal judge in Pennsylvania banned the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in the Dover Area School District. Last month, in Kansas, the state Board of Education approved public school standards that cast doubt on evolutionary theory.

Kennedy said Science picked evolution as the year’s biggest breakthrough in part because it was a “hot topic,” but stressed that there was a wealth of research that justified the choice, ranging from field studies to molecular-scale genetic analysis.

Nine other topics were listed as runners-up in the annual "Breakthrough" roundup:

  • Planetary safaris: With spacecraft at or on the way to the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, a comet, an asteroid, Saturn, and the very edge of the solar system, planetary discovery soared in 2005. The high point may have been the landing of Europe's Huygens probe on Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
  • A rich year for plants: Several key molecular cues behind flowering and other plant mysteries and surprises came to light in 2005. For example, plant molecular biologists pinned down the identity of a signal that initiates the seasonal development of flowers.
  • The nature of neutron stars: In 2005, new instruments yielded vivid insights into the most violent behaviors of neutron stars. An intense pulse of radiation from near the center of the Milky Way may have been the result of a short gamma-ray burst — a rapid merger of two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole.
  • Brain wiring and disease: Several studies in 2005 suggest that diseases such schizophrenia, Tourette syndrome , and dyslexia are rooted in "faulty wiring" of the brain's neural circuitry during development in the womb.
  • Where did Earth come from? Researchers looked at earthly rocks and meteorites that resemble the starting material of the solar system — and found that their atoms were significantly different. Some scientists say early Earth materials came from a different part of the solar system, while others say parts of early Earth are hidden deep within the planet.
  • Key protein's close-up: The most detailed molecular portrait to date of a voltage-gated potassium channel was unveiled in 2005. These channels, gatekeeper proteins that usher potassium ions in and out of cells, are as key to nerve and muscle functioning as transistors are to computers.
  • Changing climate of climate change? In 2005, evidence linking humans to global warming continued to accumulate, and U.S. politicians began to take notice .
  • Cell signaling steps up: Dynamic views of how cells respond to the chemical and environmental signals all around them took hold in 2005, thanks to efforts to track multiple inputs and outputs of cell signaling networks simultaneously.
  • Fusion research in France: The struggle over the location of the world's first fusion reactor has ended — the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor will be built at Cadarache in southern France and not in Japan.

The editors took note of scientific lessons learned from natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake — and drew attention to progress toward better risk analysis, early warning systems and disaster-resistant engineering.

They also said the state of U.S. particle physics ranked as the "breakdown of the year," due in part to the federal government's cancellation of two multimillion-dollar experiments (BTeV and RSVP). The journal's roundup didn't mention the late-breaking controversy over South Korean stem cell research — a breakdown that involved research published by Science earlier in the year.

Eight fields of research were identified as "areas to watch in 2006": the avian flu, gravity-wave detection, RNAi-based treatments, ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, microbial evolution, the "superflow" of solidified helium, high-temperature superconductivity — and the potential for continued sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker , long presumed extinct but recently rediscovered.

This report includes information from Reuters and MSNBC.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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