The Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2008

Life on Mars?

Not yet, at least not that we know of. But NASA's intrepid spacecraft Phoenix, cobbled together partly with some leftover parts at a paltry cost of $420 million, showed once and for all that there is ice beneath Mars' north pole. That increases the possibility that there is, or at least was, life somewhere on the Red Planet, because water is essential for life as we know it.

Phoenix wasn't exactly looking for life but months of poking and digging and analyzing produced some reason for hope. The small craft found salts and clays, which require water to form, and it dug up ice crystals from the red soil.

Because of the planet's varying distances from the sun, and its tilted axis, the polar regions do warm up about every million years or so, making those areas more suitable for life. Even a microbe would be a welcome sight.

Your Genome, Cheap

DNA guru James Watson had his entire genome sequenced. It took a couple of months and cost only about $1 million. Now, it seems, everybody wants to get into the act.

A number of companies began offering genome sequencing, and the cost dropped to about $200,000. Still others opened shop, offering an abbreviated profile that would search for a wide range of potential illnesses for a few hundred dollars. But health authorities across the country became alarmed because of the potential for mistakes and difficulty in interpreting what the findings actually mean, and regulatory agencies leaped into action with new and proposed rules.

So at the moment it's not clear how available any of these services are likely to be but it's probably only a matter of time. At least we would know more about what to dread, even if we can't cure it yet.

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