Science-fiction writers could be excused for complaining that in 2010 their best plotlines were stolen -- by real scientists.
Take the work of researchers at the U.S.-based J. Craig Venter Institute, led by the pioneering biologist best known for sequencing the human genome.
The press gathered in May to learn from Venter that his scientists had created the first synthetic cell
, controlled entirely by man-made genetic instructions.
"This is the first self-replicating species that we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer," Venter explained. "It also is the first species to have its own website encoded in its genetic code."
Indeed, traits for the engineered bacterium, which was created solely as a demonstration, were recorded in a computer file before the data was converted into DNA segments and inserted into an emptied cell.
The technique has been hailed as a breakthrough in the controversial, cutting-edge field of synthetic biology, and several companies are already researching human-altered organisms that can produce fuel or vaccines.
Just days before the announcement, the British journal “Nature” reported that a team of scientists from four U.S. universities had created a microscopic, spiderlike “robot” whose descendants might one day kill individual cancer cells or sweep clogged arteries clean.
Made out of a protein body with strands of DNA for legs, the man-made critter measures just four billionths of a meter in diameter, and can start, stop, and turn within a cell using chemical signals. Previous versions have been able to "walk" only a few steps, while the newest model can walk about 50.
If manipulating DNA for synthetic cells and molecular robots sounds odd, imagine scientists’ surprise when one of the most basic assumptions about the trait-coding molecules was overturned this year.
In early December, biologists from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) presented their study
of a unique strain of bacteria.
Arsenic-feeding bacteria, which are making scientists question the fundamental building blocks of life.
Found living in California lake, it thrives off arsenic, an element otherwise toxic. But not only did the bacteria derive its fuel from the poison, it also integrated the arsenic into the fabric of its DNA, rewiring the fundamental molecule for a life in a way that few could have imagined.
Many in the scientific community were stunned by the discovery, including Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"This is potentially a huge finding because there are six elements that we consider [to be] the fundamental building blocks of life, and until now, one of them was not arsenic," she said.
Seager explains that the discovery is significant because "it's not just that the bacteria can eat or breathe or live with arsenic, it's actually that it has been swapped [in] as part of the DNA in a way that is more like science fiction than science fact."
NASA researchers say the discovery that life can thrive in such an unusual condition increases the chances of finding life on other planets.Mysteries Of Physics
While we search for life beyond Earth, why not unlock the secrets of the universe, too?
That’s essentially the goal of the Large Hadron Collider, the famed $10 billion atom-smasher buried deep underground at the border of France and Switzerland.
Researchers on the project say breakthrough discoveries in physics are coming quicker than anticipated; this year they succeeded in capturing atoms of antimatter -- the mysterious counterpart to matter -- for the first time.
While the atoms were only captured for two-tenths of a second, studying them could help solve some of the central enigmas regarding the universe’s creation.
The scientists also predict that as soon as next year, they’ll be able to prove the existence of extra dimensions.Science For The People
Outside of the lab, consumers didn’t have to wait to experience the extra dimension, as 3D TVs entered the marketplace.
The British television channel Sky launched Europe’s first 3D channel in October, days after Virgin Media launched a network of 3D movies on demand.
While high prices -- 3D televisions cost can cost more than $5,000 -- and lack of compatibility with older technologies have tempered public excitement, electronics giants such as Toshiba and Panasonic are heavily investing in 3D research.
Old and new. An Apple computer from 1990 and an Apple iPad - "the fastest adopted gadget in history."
Brian Chen, staff writer for the technology website Wired.com, explains that consumers may become more interested "in the next three to five years when these [televisions] start to get closer to the price of a [high-definition] TV."
Consumers definitely reacted well to personal computing advances in 2010.
At only a few centimeters thick, the tablet computer did away with the keyboard and mouse in favor of touch-screen technology.
Starting at around $500, tablet computers offer consumers hundreds of new computing applications and a highly portable alternative to laptops.
Chen notes that the first of the tablets -- Apple’s iPad -- set the standard for imitators.
"They sold 4 million iPads in the first quarter [of 2010], which is really, really big," Chen says. "By way of comparison, Apple sold 1 million iPhones in its first quarter, so [the iPad is] the fastest-adopted gadget in history."
Using your tablet, you could search the web to find other top stories from this year, including the completion of the first-ever census of marine life
, which described a “riot” of new species lurking under the waves.
You could also read about the creation of a supersensitive clock that keeps time to within one second every 3.7 billion years -- nearly 40 times more precise than the existing international standard for timekeeping.
Or you could have pointed your browser to some of the year’s most exciting health stories, including a potential milestone in the fight to lower rates of HIV transmission.
A South African trial of a new vaginal gel containing the medication tenofovir has shown a nearly 40 percent reduction in HIV infections.
And while the year in health, just as in science and technology, saw a host of innovations and novelties, one tried-and-true remedy also emerged as a top story this year. It turns out that aspirin, the go-to medication for headaches and fevers, may also significantly reduce the risk of a variety of cancers.
A study from Britain this month concluded that taking low-dose aspirin every day can significantly cut death rates from colorectal, stomach, and other types of cancer.
That may not redefine life as we know it -- like the arsenic-loving bacteria -- but it does seem able to potentially extend life as we know it. And that’s as big a breakthrough as any.