Brussels, 20 Dec 2004
The discovery of Mars' watery past by NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers has been chosen as the key scientific advance of 2004 in an annual list compiled by Science magazine.
'Inanimate, wheeled, one-armed boxes roaming another planet have done something no human has ever managed,' the magazine wrote. 'They have discovered another place in the universe where life could once have existed.'
The two NASA rovers found rippled sediments that offer compelling evidence for the prolonged existence of salty, acidic seas on the surface of the Red Planet. 'There wasn't much doubt about this year's winner,' said Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy.
Runner up in the list was the discovery by Australian scientists of a new human species on the island of Flores, dubbed the Hobbit. Even more surprisingly, the team found evidence suggesting that the one metre tall humans had survived on the Indonesian island up until around 13,000 years ago.
In third place was the announcement by scientists in South Korea that they had succeeded in cloning human embryos; representing the first peer reviewed evidence that such a technique is possible using human cells and an important step towards therapeutic cloning.
Other breakthroughs to make the top ten included the discovery of the important role played by 'junk' DNA in gene activation and protein production, identification of the first known orbiting pair of pulsars - or neutron stars - and disturbing projections of the threat facing thousands of wild species around the world.
Also singled out for a place in the top ten were the new forms of public-private partnership for research and aid that Science says are leading to 'a revolution in public health. These partnerships, such as the Commission supported European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (ECTP), are changing the way drugs are developed, tested and distributed to the poorest nations on Earth, the journal said.