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The first discoveries of the 21st Century

As we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I thought it would be interesting to go over the discoveries and advances this past decade has brought us.

One of the most fascinating and ground baking achievements of the decade so far is the successful completions of the full Human Genome in 2003. The Human Genome is the full DNA found in each cell of a human’s body. It characterises us from head to toe and although is different in each individual, has an overall map by which we can analyse traits and genes. This blueprint is stored over 23 chromosome pairs which each hold different genes in different domains. A chromosome can be broken down to its basic component – DNA – by several levels of unwrapping of the compact molecule. DNA itself is composed of two chains of molecules called nucleotides which pair up forming the double helix discovered by Watson and Crick. The sequencing of the Human Genome is the process by which scientists have created a database containing every single nucleotide sequence contained in each gene in each chromosome. As well as providing us with a huge amount of information on the human genome, this achievement allows scientists to analyse and study different genes and find out more about how we work and why. Other genomes have been recently fully sequenced – that of the mouse and the horse – allowing us to compare differences and similarities. The mouse genome is particularly useful in genetics studies as it is very similar to that of the human and can thus be analysed.

Continuing in the medical sector, the discovery of a cervical cancer vaccine in 2006 by Dr Ian Frazer has been followed by a worldwide implementation of this vaccination. The HPV vaccine (Human papillomavirus) has been shown to prevent the infection via a species of human papillomavirus associated with cervical cancer and other less common cancers. As HPV is the most sexually transmitted diseases worldwide, this is a very important discovery. It has been recommended as a vaccination of young women in Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States in the hope of reducing the amount of cervical cancer worldwide which is a painful and costly disease to treat.

The 21st century has also been host to the first successful face transplant in France in 2005. This procedure is still in an experimental phase and most successful transplant cover smaller areas of the body. It is aimed at people disfigured following burns, disease or even birth defects. Up till now the only alternative – using the skin from a patient’s back in over 50 operations – has not been very attractive, neither from a pain or an esthetical point of view. The first successful facial transplant was performed by Jean-Michel Dubernard, plastic and microsurgeon. The skin for the transplant was taken from a triangle of tissue from a brain-dead’s human nose and mouth. Although reports say that the whole procedure was complicated and left the patient’s immune system severely depleted, Isabelle Dinoire (whose face was ravaged by her dog) has said that she is happy with the results.

More discoveries have been made in the astronomy area. In 2004, Mars Exploration Rovers discovered evidence that there was once water on Mars. This finding was later proved, in 2008, when tests reveal evidence of ice on Mars. In a ruling to change all primary science lessons from now on, Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet in 2006, lowering the number of planets in the Solar System to 8. In 2001, Dennis Tito – the first space tourist – entered the International Space Station for the modest sum of $19 million.

Many other discoveries and events have filled the beginning of the 21st century in all science areas, although going through all of them would take the next decade! Here are a few more of this decade’s fascinating findings. In 2003, a human dwarf species was unearthered – Homo thoresiensis. 2004 was home to the first ever hurricane in South Atlantic and on the 22nd of July 2009, we experienced the longest solar eclipse of the century. What more to come?

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