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Science in the Spotlight

Discovery of gene 'control switches' named top scientific achievement of 2002

THURSDAY, Dec. 19, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The discovery of molecules called small RNAs, which control much of a gene's behavior, has been named the top scientific achievement of 2002 by the journal Science.

Small RNAs may further research on cancer and stem cells. RNA was long believed to do little more than carry out DNA's commands for building proteins.

However, the new findings revealed that small RNAs actually control many of a cell's genetic workings. The discovery means biologists must rethink their understanding of the cell and its evolution.

It also may help scientists find new leads for ways of treating diseases, including cancer, that are caused by errors in the genome.

Recent studies uncovered how small RNAs are able to switch various genes on and off and are even able to trim away unwanted sections of DNA.

It's also been revealed that small RNAs are in control during cell division and shepherd the material in chromosomes into the right configuration.

Small RNAs may also prove useful in stem cell research. They may provide scientists with a way to manipulate stem cells as the stem cells turn into various cell types.

The runner-up was research that solved a longstanding mystery about neutrinos, some of the least understood particles in the universe. They come in three varieties, including electron neutrinos that are created in the sun's nuclear furnace.

Until this year, scientists didn't know why the number of electron neutrinos reaching Earth is so much smaller than what they expected it to be. This year, scientists at the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory in Canada confirmed that the "missing" electron neutrinos change into other types of neutrinos as they travel to Earth.

More information

Here's where to learn more about RNA.

SOURCE: American Association for the Advancement of Science, news release, Dec. 19, 2002
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