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2016 Nobels: Science News fans read it here first

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4:37pm, October 19, 2016
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This year’s Nobel Prizes honored scientific achievements that dedicated Science News readers (with good memories) would have found familiar. A dive into our archives revealed some interesting results.

The physiology or medicine prize recognized autophagy, the cellular process by which living cells dispose of — or recycle — their biochemical garbage. Molecular biology writer Tina Hesman Saey identified the importance of this field years ago, writing an in-depth take in 2011 (SN: 3/26/11, p. 18).

The Nobel physics prize honored three researchers for their use of the math of shapes to describe matter in exotic states. Turns out that topology, which describes shifting shapes and spatial relationships (illustrated at the Nobel news conference by bagels and pretzels), helped elucidate some weird properties of matter at low temperatures, including superconductivity and various quantum phenomena. In 2010, contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze reported on one of the many fruits of such research in a feature on topological insulators (SN: 5/22/10, p. 22). These new materials could have applications in everything from detecting new basic particles to building quantum computers.

Chemistry’s Nobel, for “molecular machines,” cited work by researchers frequently mentioned in Science News over the years. News stories in 1996 and 1997 described Jean-Pierre Sauvage’s work on molecules tied up like knots (pretzels again). J. Fraser Stoddart turns up often in our pages, including in a 1998 article on molecular pistons and cylinders. Bernard Feringa’s key “molecular motor” advance was reported in 1999. More recently, former SN staff writer Rachel Ehrenberg described his nanometers-sized electric car (SN: 12/17/11, p. 8).

You can almost imagine Nobel committee members getting prize ideas by leafing through the pages of Science News. So, for you future committee members looking for noteworthy contributions, here’s a few in this issue:

In medicine, we report on a potential new carrier of the Zika virus and recent efforts to understand Zika’s impacts. Then there’s the emerging field of “multi-omics,” research working to build a layered understanding of the cell’s many different networks, from genes to RNA to proteins and chemical metabolites. By integrating data from multiple “omes” (the genome, proteome, transcriptome, metabolome and others), scientists expect to gain insights into how organisms work, as science writing intern Laurel Hamers reports. The approach faces challenges due to the sheer amount of data. But by considering multiple layers of complexity in health and disease, it offers huge promise in the realm of personalized medicine.

In physics, writer Emily Conover describes calculations that imply shock waves could have swept through the universe immediately after the Big Bang. Those shocks could help explain the preponderance of matter over antimatter, an enduring mystery in cosmology. Another hint about the missing antimatter has come from new observations at the Large Hadron Collider.

For chemistry, we cover news of the first reported use in viable human embryos of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool — a molecular marvel already getting Nobel buzz.

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