In the newsroom, any story about a new scientific method faces an uphill battle. Editors are likely to reject such a story; writers themselves often downplay these stories because they’ve learned that the answer is usually “no.” To those of us who follow science, how scientists do what they do becomes important, and thus worth writing about, only once a new method reveals a novel truth about nature. We are after the “what,” not necessarily the “how” (although we always make a point to summarize how a discovery is made).
In this issue, hidden in plain sight, are a number of stories that feature in one way or another new — or newly applied — methods, what the tools reveal about the world and, perhaps even more interesting to watchers of human nature, the many aftershocks new tools can create.
The study of fungal forms, for example, is an old science. But genetic tools have enabled new, more precise ways of seeing the organisms. As Susan Milius relates in "The name of the fungus," DNA studies can discern fungal species with more accuracy than a magnifying lens or microscope ever allowed. The tools have also created a challenge for mycologists, who are faced with the daunting prospect of changing their entire naming system, reclassifying many species and renaming thousands of fungal types.
A combination of genetic, computational and optical tools has enabled scientists to control select neurons in fruit flies, producing the advance described in the lead news story. Laura Sanders writes that scientists have been able to link a suite of 29 behaviors in fly larvae to specific groups of nerve cells that produce each wiggle, roll and scooch. In "First chromosome made synthetically from yeast," Tina Hesman Saey reports on how a new application of genetic engineering tools has created the first synthetic chromosome in a yeast cell. The lab-made chromosome seems to function as well as any of the yeast’s own. And in "Unsolved drugs," Beth Mole describes how the relatively young field of systems biology and its methods have created a ruckus by suggesting a new way that common antibiotics may kill microbes — an idea still hotly contested in the scientific literature.
Sometimes a new “how” does make for an exciting what.