90th Anniversary Issue: 1970s

Genetic engineering, prescient reporting and other highlights, 1970–79

12:12pm, March 9, 2012
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Engineering genes
In the 1970s, genetic engineering feats started to come rapid-fire. Scientists were swapping genes between cells (3/20/71, p. 193), making synthetic copies of genes that could function in living creatures (9/1/73, p. 132) and learning to cut and paste genes using chemical scissors called restriction enzymes (3/20/76, p. 188). This quick progress raised hopes of new, better medicines, but also created fears of Frankenbugs escaping laboratories and introducing unstoppable diseases. In the face of growing alarm, scientists met at a seaside California resort in 1975 to agree on how to rein in their own research (right, ideas for creating safer engineered organisms). A Science News editor was there, detailing “this quiet piece of history” (3/8/75, p. 148). The next year, the U.S. National Institutes of Health issued formal guidelines on recombining genetic materials. Any slowdown was minimal, though, and in 1977 commercial genetic engineering got a boost when the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals ruled that companies could patent engineered micro­organisms (10/15/77, p. 247). Erika Engelhaupt

Note: N indicates findings that went on to win a Nobel Prize.

1970 | Atomic head shot Using an electron microscope, physicist Albert Crewe takes the first photographs of individual atoms (5/30/70, p. 524).

1971 | Gene transfer Scientists successfully transfer genetic information from one animal cell to another, correcting a genetic deficiency (3/20/71, p. 193).

1971 | DDT ousted William Ruckelshaus, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, announces the cancellation of all uses of DDT in the United States (1/23/71, p. 63).

1971 | Mars view Mariner 9 orbits Mars, sending home pictures of a global dust storm (11/20/71, p. 339).

1972 | Nerve cells MIT biophysicists propose that nerve cell membranes build up electrical charges using protein channels as gates for sodium ions (7/1/72, p. 14).

1972 | Black hole sign Studies of radio emissions from Cygnus X-1 support claims that it is a black hole (9/23/72, p. 197).

1973 | CT scans Godfrey Hounsfield reports the use of computed tomography scanning to create cross-sectional X-ray images of body tissues (9/1/73, p. 134). N

1973 | Synthetic gene MIT scientists report the first synthesis of a gene with the potential to function detectably within a living cell (9/1/73, p. 132).

1974 | Ozone hole Researchers report evidence that Freon and other chloro­fluorocarbons destroy stratospheric ozone (9/21/74, p. 180; 10/5/74, p. 212). N

1974 | J/psi particle Two teams find a new subatomic particle, now known as the J/psi, providing evidence for the existence of the charmed quark (11/23/74, p. 324; 11/30/74, p. 340; 1/25/75, p. 58). N

1975 | Genetics limits At a conference at Asilomar in California, scientists for the first time develop rules restricting investigations in the nascent field of genetic engineering (3/8/75, p. 148; 3/22/75, p. 194; 6/7/75, p. 366; 12/13/75, p. 372).

1975 | Lucy found Donald C. Johanson and his team report finding the partial skeleton of a human ancestor more than 3 million years old, nicknamed Lucy (1/4/75, p. 4).

1977 | Bottom quark Leon Lederman and colleagues report evidence of a new quark, the bottom quark, in experiments at Fermilab (8/13/77, p. 100; 8/5/78, p. 87).

1978 | In vitro baby The world’s first test-tube baby is born in England (7/22/78, p. 51; 9/23/78, p. 212; 12/9/78, p. 407).

1978 | Primate talk Two chimps exhibit “the first instance of symbolic communication between non­human primates” (8/19/78, p. 117). Koko, a “talking” gorilla, is reported to have a sign language vocabulary of 375 words (10/14/78, p. 265).

1979 | Nuclear meltdown The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant experiences a catastrophic accident (4/7/79, p. 227; 5/5/79, p. 292; 7/21/79, p. 45; 11/3/79, p. 309; 12/15/79, p. 405).

Prescient prognostications
Science News has reliably covered most of the biggest science stories of the last 90 years. But also tucked away in the magazine’s pages have been many signs that SN reporters were on to something before it was mainstream.

1936  Women may one day borrow an egg from another woman, have the egg fertilized in a test tube and then incubate the egg in their own wombs (4/11/36, p. 228).

1943  Water hyacinth (shown left) is becoming a serious river pest in the United States (2/13/43, p. 102). In 1968, SN writes that the plant “now clogs waterways of southern states and costs millions a year in dredging bills” (10/26/68, p. 423).

1943  A dream refrigerator is envisioned that will open its doors at the touch of a switch, dispense cool water, make ice cubes automatically and have a separate freezer — one that even defrosts itself (3/27/43, p. 198).

1956  Weather forecasts may soon start coming with probability estimates for the predictions, such as “a 60 percent chance of rain” (5/19/56, p. 307).

1957  A new field called gnotobiotics, “the study of animals in a germ-free or germ-controlled environment,” is described (1/26/57, p. 62). Today, gnotobiotic animals are used in labs around the world (6/18/11, p. 26). Erika Engelhaupt

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