The Most Remarkable Scientific Fields—Predicted by “Science”

In 2012, Science’s editors will be watching single-cell sequencing, the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, the Human Connectome Project, expeditions to study subglacial Antarctic waters, cancer immunotherapy, and basic plant research.

ONE CELL AT A TIME

Single-cell DNA sequencing burst onto the scene this year, with advances in microfluidics, the isolation of rare cells, and the ability to decipher these tricky one-shot genomes—milestones that should help break the field wide open in 2013. Even more exciting, some say, are prospects for learning about how cells—particularly brain cells—work by studying the RNA in individual,intact cells. In the coming year, single-cell sequencing promises to reveal a lot about how cancer cells vary within a tumor and how many copies of genes reside in each cell. Expect continued progress in developing this technology for medical diagnostics for cancer and prenatal applications. Meanwhile, several groups are assessing what genes are doing by measuring in individual cells the messenger RNA that carries their instructions to a cell’s protein factories. htttp://www.ebiochem.com

PLANCK MAPS THE COSMIC MICROWAVE BACKGROUND

The European Space Agency’s Planck satellite will produce the most precise map yet of the afterglow of the big bang, the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). The discovery of the CMB in 1965 bolstered the notion that the universe was born in an explosive big bang. Measurements of tiny variations in its temperature in 1992 supported the idea that the universe expanded at greater than light speed in a brief spurt of “inflation.” And the precise mapping of those variations in 2003 helped nail down the composition of the universe: 5% ordinary visible matter, 22% as-yet invisible dark matter, and 73% space-stretching dark energy. Planck will test the now-standard cosmology in greater detail—and could find evidence that the relatively simple scenario isn’t quite the whole story.htttp://www.ebiochem.com

CONNECTOMES

In 2013, the Human Connectome Project will get into full swing. This $38.5 million effort, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, aims to scan the brains of 1200 healthy adults, including 300 pairs of twins, to investigate individual variations in the connections between brain regions and how they might account for individual differences in cognition and behavior. Several other projects are zooming in to examine neural connectivity at the cellular level. Advocates and critics have debated how much these maps will advance our understanding of brain function. By this time next year, far more data will help inform the debate.

PIERCING A FRIGID UNDERWORLD

The depths of Antarctica are about to be brought to light. In February, after 14 years of off-and-on drilling through 4 kilometers of East Antarctic ice, Russian scientists stopped just short of the surface of a mysterious subglacial lake likely cut off from the rest of the planet for millions of years. This month, the team returns to Lake Vostok with plans to bring back samples of ice—and, they hope, to discover signs of long-buried indigenous life. U.S.-led and U.K.-led teams are embarking on their own expeditions to study subglacial Antarctic waters. The U.S. team will head to the Whillans Ice Stream, where Antarctic ice joins the Southern Ocean; the U.K. team, to Lake Ellsworth, also on the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet. htttp://www.ebiochem.com

CANCER IMMUNOTHERAPY

Recently developed drugs that harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer have beaten back the disease in a small subset of tumor-ridden patients. Researchers predict that combining two such immunotherapies that target different pathways could pack an even more powerful punch. In 2013, look for early results from clinical trials that pair two antibodies that thwart pathways that tumor cells co-opt to hide from the immune system, and for reports on human studies that combine this brake-lifting strategy with treatments that rev up the body’s immune response.

PLANT POWER

Expect basic plant research to pay off this year, with farmers making use of drought-resistant crops and companies selling the first algae-based diesel fuel. Researchers expect to pin down details of the molecular and genetic components that interact to regulate the growth of plants.

Mechanical forces will prove to play a key role in this regulation. Melding genomic,developmental, and ecological studies should help reveal how natural variation can succeed—or fail—to enable plants to adapt to climate change.

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