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January 3, 2003

Genomes, Cosmos, and Nano Among NSF Science Highlights from 2002

Looking back on 2002, research supported by the National Science Foundation continued to make headlines and expand the horizons of science and education in the United States and around the world. NSF's science success was also recognized in the year's Nobel Prizes -- five of the eight Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and economics received NSF funding during their careers (

Other notable results of NSF support ran the gamut from the completion of the rice genome to the discovery of 3,000-year-old microbes living deep below the ice of Antarctica's Lake Vida. These and the other discoveries from 2002 highlighted here demonstrate how NSF continues to promote the progress of science in the 21st century. For more information on these highlights contact David Hart at (703) 292-8070.


In December, Japanese and U.S. scientists announced the completion of an advanced blueprint of the rice genome ( This milestone points the way toward improving the quality and increasing yields of a food staple consumed by over half of the world's population. Other genomic successes included a comparison of anthrax genomes published in Science ( and the first draft sequence of a worldwide crop-killing fungus genome (


In 2002, NSF-supported astronomers and instruments reported the most detailed images of the oldest light emitted by the universe-twice. In May, results from the Cosmic Background Imager in the Chilean desert ( and in December from the Arcminute Cosmology Bolometer Array Receiver (ACBAR) at the South Pole ( produced high-resolution images of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. Among other results, the images map the first tentative seeds of matter and energy that would later evolve into clusters of hundreds of galaxies. New results in September from the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI) at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, later published in Nature, revealed a feature of the CMB that supports the leading theory of universe formation.

Cosmic Background Imager
The CBI consists of 13 radio antennas located on a plateau at 5,080 meters (16,700 feet) in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Credit: CBI/Caltech/NSF
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(Size: 146KB), or download a high-resolution TIFF version of image (47.9MB)


Two studies published in Science pushed back the origins of early human behavior. Discovered at Blombos Cave in South Africa, two pieces of ochre with abstract designs were dated to 70,000 years ago, twice as old as the earliest previous evidence ( And artifacts found in Mexico suggest that written communication originated during the Olmec era, 350 years earlier than previous specimens suggested ( Another study in Science on the use of tools by chimpanzees may provide fresh clues about how tools developed among our human ancestors (

Photo of Cylinder seal (Size: 13.8KB)
Cylinder seal from San Andrés, Tabasco, Mexico, showing the glyphs, including 3 Ajaw, the name of a day in the 260-day Mesoamerican calendar.
Photo Credit: Christopher von Nagy
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(Size: 151KB), or download a high-resolution TIFF version of image (20.4MB)


In December, NSF-supported researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that they had drilled into Antarctica's frozen Lake Vida to find that the lake wasn't frozen at all and had revived 2,800-year-old microbes from deep within the ice cover ( At the other extreme, a study in Science reported on the symbiosis between plants and fungi living in geothermally heated soils ( Other NSF-supported researchers described the hardy microbes living in highly acidic rivers, within rock salt, beneath mountains and in hot springs.

Filament-like lake-ice microbes
Filament-like lake-ice microbes found in ice from the dry valleys (the region where Lake Vida is located). These filamentous bacteria dominate the ice covers of these lakes.
Image courtesy of the Priscu Research Group, Montana State University at Bozeman
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(Size: 755KB)


In January, researchers reported in Nature on an evolutionary "speed limit"-species diversify after mass extinctions more slowly than previously thought ( Another group of researchers reported that surviving a mass extinction does not guarantee evolutionary success ( Experimenting with live blue jays and evolving virtual moths, researchers reported in Nature that predators' behavior can promote variation in the appearance of prey species ( Also in Nature, another group of scientists reported successfully using computer models to predict the evolution of bacteria (


In 2002, researchers reported in Science on the creation of a laser-like beam of extreme ultraviolet light, which represents a breakthrough for "seeing" objects at the nanometer scale ( Other developments point the way to nanoscale computation. Two groups of NSF-supported researchers reported in Nature on fashioning transistors from single molecules ( A group of chemists reporting in Nature ( and materials researchers reporting in Physical Review B ( described two different nanomagnets that could shrink ultra-high-density storage devices to record small sizes.

The entire system for creating EUV beams in the JILA lab; caption is below
The entire system for creating EUV beams in the JILA lab fits within a space of less than two square meters - in this iteration, the setup is configured for creating holograms.
Photo credit: Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn, JILA at the University of Colorado.
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(Size: 31KB) or download high resolution TIF file (5.5 MB)


NSF-sponsored researchers have probed the properties of whole atoms of antimatter, the "mirror image" of matter, for the first time. The team has made the first measurements of a complete antihydrogen atom. The team ripped anti-hydrogen atoms apart with an electric field and described the results in Physical Review Letters (


An NSF-funded study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on the lingering psychological impact of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ( The study demonstrated that coping efforts such as 'giving up' predicted poor psychological outcomes over time. Other NSF-supported studies reported that positive responses helped people achieve a sense of closure and also noted a dip in popularity of city residences ( Civil engineers also modeled the impact of the planes on the World Trade Center ( and the Pentagon ( to help improve the design of critical buildings.

simulation of plane impact

simulation of plane impact

simulation of plane impact

Simulating the airplane's impact on the building structure and the ensuing fire.
Images courtesy: Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley


NSF-funded research published in Nature uncovered the molecular basis by which plants protect themselves against bacteria and fungi ( And in the journal Cell, NSF-supported scientists described how some bacteria fight back. They identified a plant protein that bacterial pathogens use to make the host plant more hospitable, even beneficial, to their invasion ( Finally, microbiologists reported in Nature on the first bacterium that can 'sniff out' its food of choice and, if a source is not nearby, can grow flagella, the whip-like structures that enable it to swim (


Experiments at NSF's Konza Prairie Long Term Ecological Research site, reported in Science (, and computer analysis of Mexican species, published in Nature (, both predicted that dramatic reductions in biodiversity would result from global climate change. A study of past climate changes in the South American tropics, published in Science, contradicts traditional notions of how glaciers advanced and retreated during the last ice age, suggesting the global mechanism is still not understood (

researcher study grassland plots (Size: 17KB)
Researchers study grassland plots to determine plant species composition, and changes related to global climate change.
Photo Credit: Kansas State University
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Iceberg B-15A, a fragment of ice nearly the size of Connecticut that broke away from Antarctica in March 2000, may be in its death throes, due in part to collisions with other huge icebergs (, researchers reported in February. In May, however, two new, large icebergs dubbed C-18 and C-19 broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf ( The massive B-15 and C-19 icebergs may be responsible for reducing the number of Emperor penguins living and breeding at Cape Crozier, according to two researchers who visited the site in October (

a group of emperor penguins; caption is below
A group of emperor penguins photographed at Cape Crozier.
Photo Credit: Gerald Kooyman, NSF / Scripps Institution of Oceanography
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Two studies in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tied pesticides to deformities in Pennsylvania wood frogs ( and to disruptions in frogs' sexual development ( In both cases, the concentrations that caused were lower than levels allowed by Environmental Protection Agency standards.


Researchers reported in Science on the discovery of a peptide molecule that triggers celiac sprue -- a severe inflammation of the intestine that results from eating wheat and related grains -- and proposed a treatment strategy. As many as 1 in 200 Americans suffers from the condition ( A study published in the Journal of Cell Science described for the first time a method of culturing poorly understood cell structures called Hirano bodies, which may play a role in diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's Disease and cancer (


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