Microbiome emerges as a clear breakthrough

Back in August, when we first began planning this issue’s compilation of the top science stories of 2013 (SN: 12/28/13, p. 18), there was no shoo-in for the No. 1 spot.

One contender was the creation of functional artificial kidneys and livers in the lab, as well as a kind of simple minibrain, all grown from scratch (SN: 12/28/13, p. 20). These were also among the most-read stories for the year on the sciencenews.org website (SN: 12/28/13, p. 38).

Another top candidate was the shuttering of the Planck spacecraft after its successful mission to spy on light that was created just after the Big Bang (Page 21). This ancient radiation, marked by events that took place early in the universe, “just looks like noise, but there is nothing in cosmology that contains more information,” says Planck project scientist Charles Lawrence of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Some of the stunning single-frequency sky maps used to assemble Planck’s cosmic vistas are included in this issue’s Science Visualized (SN: 12/28/13, p. 40) and one is featured on the cover. Admittedly, Planck did not produce any major breakthroughs. But it did confirm and add new detail to current understandings of the age, composition and geometry of the universe, as well as to one of the most important events in all of time: the Big Bang. That’s historic, if still not quite the story of the year.

Then, as summer turned to fall, we noticed a quiet, nearly incessant buzz about microbes and how they affect the body and health. News pitches from molecular biology writer Tina Hesman Saey about interesting new microbiome studies landed in my e-mail inbox on what seemed a weekly basis. Then life sciences writer Susan Milius got into the act, writing about how microbes in insects may affect the course of the insects’ evolution. In the capable hands of former editor in chief Tom Siegfried, who did an admirable job pulling the entire year-end section together, 2013’s top story started to take shape.

These past few months have underscored our choice, with Saey adding new bits to the lead story of this issue (SN: 12/28/13, p. 18) as new results continued to roll in well into December. Like bacteria themselves, the microbiome story seems small in scale. But added up, it’s quite a tale. The various creatures that live in and on us have a powerful, if often invisible, influence on how the body works. In years to come, understanding those influences may provide answers to some of the most enduring mysteries in physiology and medicine, from obesity to autism and autoimmune disease.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine