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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Science announces the Breakthrough of the Year

The ape Ardipithecus ramidus, a possible human ancestor, inhabited then-wooded regions of Ethiopia 4.4 million years ago. This year, studies of the fossilized skeleton of a member of the species raised surprising questions about how key human traits evolved. See the Breakthrough of the Year special section beginning on page 1598.
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[© 2009 Jay Matternes]

At the end of each year, the writers and editors of Science reflect upon all the major scientific discoveries of the previous 12 months. They look for research that has answered major questions about how the universe worksóresearch that has paved the way for future discoveriesóand then they pick a "winner."

After considering all of the most significant scientific achievements of 2009, the journal Science has selected the research that brought to light the fossils of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominid species (like humans and chimpanzees) that lived 4.4 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia, as this year's Breakthrough of the Year. This monumental fossil find is more than one million years older than "Lucy," which was the most ancient partial skeleton of a hominid until now. The discovery also inches researchers closer to the last common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees, the "missing link" that archaeologists have been searching for.

The area where "Ardi" was found is rich in hominin fossil sites, including these worked by the Middle Awash research team.
[Image © Science/AAAS]

But, even though the Ardipithecus ramidus fossils received the Breakthrough of the Year award for 2009, the writers and editors of Science recognize nine other "runners-up" that also represent groundbreaking achievements in science from the past year.

These runners-up include breakthroughs in astronomy, like the discovery of ice on the surface of the moon, the detection of gamma-ray pulsars, and the successful repair of the Hubble Telescope. They also include research with mice that seems to hold the key to slowing the aging process, and breakthroughs in treating diseases with new methods that involve gene therapy.

Another runner-up is the research that solved the structure of an important molecule that helps plants to survive during droughts. This discovery may help scientists design new ways to protect crops against prolonged dry periods and optimize biofuel production in the future.

When you consider this list of important scientific breakthroughs, it is obvious that 2009 was a very exciting year for science. Only time will tell what researchers will discover next year!