LONDON — The world-renowned journal Nature on Dec 17 released its annual list of ten people who mattered in science in 2015, which includes one Chinese scientist whose work in human embryo gene editing has caused repeated debate in the academic circle.
“This year’s list, compiled after much discussion by Nature’s journalists and editors, spans the globe, highlighting individuals who have played important roles in issues ranging from climate change to gene editing to research reproducibility,” said Helen Pearson, Nature’s Chief Features Editor.
The explosion of interest in CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing has been a major story of this year, and for this reason biologist Junjiu Huang at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou earned a place on the list.
In April, Huang published the first report of a human embryo with edited genes, sparking a global debate on the ethics of such research.
In his study, Huang and his team used spare embryos from fertility clinics that could not progress to a live birth, and modified the gene, responsible for a kind of blood disorder, in the embryos. To accomplish the task, they adopted a powerful technique known as CRISPR-Cas9, which can be programmed to precisely alter DNA at specific sequences.
He told Nature in April that he wanted to edit the genes of embryos because it “can show genetic problems related to cancer or diabetes, and can be used to study gene function in embryonic development.”
Chinese-born chemical engineer Zhenan Bao is also included in the list. The female chemical engineer at Stanford University in California built an artificial skin using carbon nanotube sensors in a multidisciplinary lab focused on integrating electronics into the human body.
Another female on the list is Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She is featured for her role in the Paris climate negotiations. Figueres has spent more than five years rallying support and bringing nations together in an effort to produce a meaningful accord.
Ali Akbar Salehi, nuclear engineer and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is also included in the list. He helped to forge a historic agreement with world powers concerning his country’s nuclear activities.
The editors also chose to include Alan Stern, who led NASA’s New Horizons mission, which successfully swept past Pluto in July, which is one of the biggest events in planetary science for years.
In addition to Huang, two scientists were included in the list for their gene-related research works.
Christina Smolke is featured for a controversial feat of synthetic biology: stitching together a pathway of 23 different genes from plants, mammals, bacteria and yeast to produce a yeast strain capable of making the powerful pain-killing drugs, opioids. David Reich has been sequencing and analyzing ancient genomes en masse to unpick human history.
Also featured is Russian physicist Mikhail Eremets, whose decades of perseverance with high-pressure physics finally struck gold when he discovered high-temperature superconductivity in the hydrogen sulfide system -- a hugely exciting development in the field.
Meanwhile, Brian Nosek earned his place in the list by leading the campaign to understand issues in scientific reproducibility, culminated this year in a high-profile attempt to replicate findings in 100 psychology studies.
Solar physicist Joan Schmelz is included in the list for her behind-the-scenes efforts to encourage female astronomers to speak up about their experiences of harassment, which helped to bring a festering problem to light.
“Nature’s ten reveals how science and scientists continue to play crucial roles in addressing global challenges,” said Pearson.