Science to watch


Keep an eye on these local researchers

Sheng Ding, associate professor of chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) was responsible for one of the biggest scientific discoveries reported in 2009: a method to convert adult cells all the way back to the most primitive embryoniclike cells without using the dangerous genetic manipulations associated with previous methods.

The new technique solved one of the most challenging safety hurdles associated with personalized stem cell-based medicine. The life sciences magazine The Scientist named the pioneering discovery the top innovation of 2009 and in addition placed Ding among the top researchers of the year. Keep an eye on Ding and his TSRI lab as well as the San Diego-based company he founded (Fate Therapeutics), which uses the technology platform.

  • Time magazine has ranked the mapping of the first human epigenome, led by Salk Institute researcher Joseph Ecker, as the No. 2 scientific discovery of 2009.

The epigenome, a layer of biochemical reactions that turns genes on and off, plays a significant role in health and heredity. For example, environmental factors can make changes to the epigenome that are then passed on to subsequent generations. This explains, in part, differences in “identical” twins and why women malnourished during pregnancy who give birth to low birth-weight children are likely to also have low birth-weight grandchildren. Using the new high-resolution maps as a research tool, Ecker’s group will now examine how the epigenome changes during normal development as well as examining a variety of disease states.

  • For 20 days last August, worldwide media was focused on the Scripps Institute of Oceanography Seaplex voyage to the North Pacific Gyre, a thousand miles off the California coast. There a research team, led by SIO graduate student Miriam Goldstein, conducted extensive sampling of small pieces of plastic alarmingly found in this remote part of the ocean.

There is little scientific information available on the composition, extent, and effects of the debris on marine and bird life. That’s about to change. Within the next several months, Goldstein will begin presenting an analysis and with it answers to how much plastic is accumulating, how is it distributed, and how is it affecting ocean life. This critical, timely data will enable the scientific community and policymakers to formulate strategies for solving this new and pressing environmental problem.

  • Michael B. A. Old-stone, professor and head of the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute is a leader in his field, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and has served on national and international committees charged with understanding, treating and eliminating viral diseases.

He is also the author of the critically acclaimed book Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future. Readable books about viruses by experts are few and far between. Originally published in 1998, last year the book was reissued as a revised and expanded edition. Now that’s staying power. But don’t take my word for it. Oldstone will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Jan. 30, at D.G.Wills Books, 7461 Girard Ave., La Jolla.

  • Amy Trujillo, a biologist with the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy (SELC), is one of 40 individuals nationwide selected as a TogetherGreen Fellow. The TogetherGreen Fellowship program is an initiative of Audubon and Toyota that provides high-potential leaders with resources and financial support for community-based conservation efforts.

Recognizing that excluding people from nature without addressing their needs will ultimately undermine conservation efforts, Trujillo will focus
on bringing neighboring landowners into a discussion about SELC’s properties in order to develop management strategies and create mutually agreeable solutions to protect the local watershed environment.

Trujillo brings to this effort lessons she learned in Northern Tanzania while studying the impacts of elephant damage to crops and the importance of balancing the needs of wildlife and people.

Eye on science — 2009 scorecard

An update on the people and entities featured last year

  • Athena San Diego continues to see membership growth as it increases program and outreach offerings for executive and rising management women in the San Diego’s science, technology, and services companies. Among new initiatives is the sharing of Athena thought leaders’ ideas with the next generation of science and technology leaders through a community outreach program.
  • Entrepreneur Larry Bock hit a home run as organizer of the first San Diego Science Festival. The spring 2009 citywide event impacted more than 250,000 individuals —including an estimated 50,000 who attended the inaugural one-day Expo at Balboa Park. The 2010 San Diego Science Festival starts March 20; the public Expo is March 27 at Petco Park.
  • The SciVee science video Web site, co-founded by UCSD Professor Phil Bourne, has doubled in both the number of visitors (160,000 per month) and its video offerings (3,000). SciVee also launched commercialization with three top-tier journals and hosted the world’s first science-video contest in partnership with The Scientist magazine.
  • Salk President William R. Brody built on existing research strengths and set the stage for new reach territory by recruiting promising young scientists in immunobiology, biophotonics, and neuroscience as well as two world-renowned scientists in stem cell and genomics research from Harvard and Stanford as Salk Non-Resident Fellows.
  • Ivan Gayler’s Nature and Culture International is at the forefront of establishing a conservation area around the Gocta Waterfall, in Peru, to protect this threatened cloud forest ecosystem. The two-tiered Gocta Waterfall, measuring an astonishing 2,530 feet, only became known to the outside world in 2006. It is now one of the most visited places in the Amazon.
  • J. Craig Venter, president and chairman of the J. Craig Venter Institute, received the National Medal of Science — the highest honor given to a scientist by the U.S. government. In a White House ceremony, President Obama presented the award to Venter in recognition of his contributions to the science of genomics.

Next week

  • Listen for community voices of 2010 in San Diego

Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.