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Hot scientific research to watch in 2008

Hot spots for potential scientific breakthroughs in 2008 include research that literally sheds light on mysteries of the brain. If that doesn’t tickle your imagination, how about the Neandertal genome? Bio-fuels made by fake bacteria? Tiny microbes that play a huge role in cancer and heart disease?

These are among the research subjects the journal Science has listed to watch this year. Collectively, they’ve already been the focus of thousands of experiments, making a wealth of information available for student science papers and maybe even, in a few cases, cocktail party chatter.

Here’s Science’s lineup with brief explanations:

Flouresence and lasers on the grey matter: Neuroscientists have learned in animal experiments how to tag neurons with fluorescent hues and also how to use lasers to control the electrical activity of individual neurons. Now the research is ready for prime time studies of how circuits of neurons process information and mediate behavior. Beyond breakthroughs in how the brain works, the research is expected to further understand of brain disorders.

Neandertal genome: A rough draft of Neandertal’s genetic lineup is expected by the end of the year along with comparisons to Homo sapiens. What’s the point? This research in paleogenomics helps flesh out fossil bones from this extinct human tool user who once roamed Europe and parts of Asia and North Africa. The research also furthers understand of our own evolution. At least one Neandertal gene has been associated with human language and speech.

Putting fake microbes to work: It’s hard to separate hype from hard research in this area, Science said, but biologists say human-made microbes are in reach. The idea is to synthesize microbial genomes and insert them into bacteria lacking DNA. An alternative is to swap synthetic DNA for the natural stuff. The fake versions would be designed to help make biofuels or pharmaceuticals.

Harnessing the body’s micromanagers: Scientists are closing in on small RNA molecules that control gene expression as it relates to cancer, heart disease, the immune system and other functions. This year they expect to start using micro-RNAs to unlock secrets of the disease mechanisms.

Chasing new computer chips: Physicists are using electric fields to manipulate the magnetic domains of compounds called multiferroics (in which single materials can display multiple properties). They intend to control and shape the materials into novel and versatile chip devices that could combine logic functions with memory functions.

Fantastic Voyage Remake II: In the spirit of the classic sci-fi journey into the body, scientists are exploring the genomes of at least 200 of the microbial critters that live in our mouths, guts and skin. Projects in the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the European Union aim to sequence the bacterial genomes and learn how their communities function.

Set to smash: Next summer, physicists are scheduled to start up the Large Hadron Collider at the European particle physics lab, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. One of the project’s stated goals for the high energy collider is “to smash protons moving at 99.999999% of the speed of light into each other and so recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang.” The experiments should shed new light on topics such as dark energy and dark matter.

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