Science Without Borders

1 February 2013


Genes — like trains — don't work without switches.

That is the conclusion of some 400 scientists working on a project called the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE). In conducting more than 1,600 experiments over five years, they discovered that the bulk of DNA in our cells is not useless as previously thought, but involved in turning genes off or on, thus influencing their output, controlling their timing and coordinating their activity with other genes.

"The complexity of our biology resides not in the number of our genes but in the regulatory switches," said Eric Green, head of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, which funds ENCODE. The discovery can help in the identification of genetic risk factors for disease and development of new drugs and treatments. ENCODE, launched in 2003, is designed to create a comprehensive list of functional elements in the human genome, and to find out how they work together.


The diversity, variety and function of the microorganisms populating the human body surprised scientists participating in the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) launched by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in 2008. Using powerful new computational methods, a group of nearly 250 scientists from about 80 research institutions around the world conducted a census of the bacteria, viruses and other microbes — all together about 10,000 microbial species — that reside in the mouth, intestines and other parts of our bodies. It turns out that each of us carries around about 10 times as many microbial cells as human cells and they have about 100 times as many genes as we do, according to Curtis Huttenhower, who helps coordinate the project. Microbial flora differ from one person to another to a large degree. Nevertheless, different microbes perform the same sort of functions in specific areas of the body. The findings can help scientists understand the roles microbes play during changes associated with diseases.


In particle physics, a sole scientist has no chance. It took a joint effort by some 10,000 scientists and engineers from 600 institutions in more than 100 countries to discover a subatomic particle that could be the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is the only particle in our understanding of particle physics that has never been observed, but has been postulated through math. Its existence has been supported by two independent experiments run on the Large Hadron Collider, an atom smasher, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. CERN is a prime example of international collaboration in science and has played a substantive role in improving international relations, especially during the Cold War. Established in 1954 near Geneva, CERN has grown to include 20 European member states and host scientists from more than 20 nations, including the United States. As of November 2012, the two teams were running additional experiments to see whether the particle they discovered was actually the Higgs boson.


The International Space Station is turning science fiction into reality. Experiments conducted on the space station will help us explore the moon and fly to the asteroids and Mars, said NASA astronaut and Expedition 30 commander Dan Burbank. Those experiments are also allowing us to study the effects of long-term zero-gravity exposure on the human body. Since 2000, an orbiting laboratory maintained primarily by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada has hosted a rotating international crew and more than 500 experiments designed by scientists from 16 nations.


In 2009, Timothy Gowers challenged readers of his blog to solve a mathematical conundrum: Find a new combinatorial proof to the density version of the Hales-Jewett theorem. Gowers' challenge sparked an unprecedented online collaboration among the world's mathematicians. Gowers, a prominent British mathematician, set ground rules and, with help of mathematician Terence Tao, managed the effort that has become known as the Polymath Project. Numbered among the 275 participants were winners of the Fields Medal — mathematics' Nobel Prize — and secondary school mathematics teachers. In a few weeks, they accomplished some highly nontrivial mathematical feats, according to Justin Cranshaw and Aniket Kittur of Carnegie Mellon University. Following on the success of Polymath 1, which produced two science papers, Gowers has posted five more problems.

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