What Are The Best Science Papers Of The Past Decade?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | December 11, 2009 1:44 pm

As the weeks wind down to 2010, we’re bombarded with ‘Year’s Best‘ lists on everything music videos to movies. Colleagues and I have recently been discussing the best science papers–not just for 2009, but the entire past decade. We’ve had many ideas as there are obviously different kinds of breakthroughs across fields that have had enormous influence.

I’m very interested to hear the rest of the science community: What do you think have been the most significant, paradigm-shifting, and fascinating articles of the 2000’s? I’ll start with a particularly notable contribution from Colosimo et al. in 2005 to get the ball rolling…

Colosimo PF, Hosemann KE, Balabhadra S, Villarreal G Jr, Dickson M, Grimwood J, Schmutz J, Myers RM, Schluter D, Schluter D, Kingsley DM. Widespread parallel evolution in sticklebacks by repeated fixation of Ectodysplasin alleles. Science 2005 Mar 25 307 (5717): 1928-33

This study had a large impact on our understanding of  biology with far reaching implications that “set a new standard in the identification of adaptive variants found in nature.”  Evolutionary genetics hasn’t been the same since its publication.

Now let’s hear from readers…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education

Comments (18)

  1. Marion Delgado

    Along the same lines, was there one definitive paper on Tiktaalik roseae that describes how it was predicted what age and location to search for something like it before it was found?

  2. Jon

    I don’t know if it’s the “best”, but I’m a big fan of Alan Baddeley’s work on working memory.


    He’s got a way of coming up with useful, compelling models, but not overshooting and trying to explain too much…

  3. A couple of random selections…

    I would identify the papers on the structure of the ribosome which was awarded a Nobel this year. However this was not really one paper but a culmination of papers and incremental advances which began way back in the 80s.

    In evolutionary biology I would think of the very significant papers detailing the discovery of the “Hobbit” and of Tiktaalik, the transitional fossil between fishes and tetrapods.

    I would also note the important stem cell paper which showed that stem cells need not be acquired from embryos.

    I wonder if there have been any truly fundamental physics breakthroughs this decade. Probably in experimental physics which I am not aware of. Maybe something in quantum entanglement.

    In mathematics, I think one will have to note the series of papers by Perelman on the proof of the Poincare conjecture. That was very significant.

  4. The virophage paper from Nature last year, showing a virus that infects other viruses.

    Lichtman’s work on Brainbow, a colourful way of visualising neural connections.

    Todd Sacktor’s Science paper on PKMzeta, a molecule that changes the way we think about memory storage

    The paper describing the creation of ADAM, the robot scientist that designs and carries out his own experiments.

    The PNAS paper a few months back where genome sequencing was, for the first time, used to reverse a faulty diagnosis and save a life.

    The paper on Africa’s massive genetic diversity (from Science I think)

    And as a totally leftfield choice, the Nature paper which showed that moray eels have a second set of ballistic jaws stored in their throats. It has no practical importance whatsoever, but it’s a beautiful demonstration of how ignorant we are, even about things that seem familiar.

  5. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    There was just some stickleback news yesterday.Coincidence? I think not…

  6. mike ferrell

    Not a reference to the paper itself, but a good summary of the research that may be key in understanding the chemistry that led to life on earth.

  7. ARJ

    No specific suggestions for papers, but just be sure you end up with 40-50% from female authors, okay ;-)) ….
    (…actually, I’d be tempted to nominate one of Gregory Chaitin’s papers on complexity and information in mathematics, but not sure which one — some mathematician out there might suggest which one is most trenchant.)

    And if you were going a little beyond 10 yrs. then Alan Sokal’s 1996 masterpiece “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” ( http://tinyurl.com/ycbb5ce ) would need to be included! ;-)))

  8. Marion Delgado

    By the way, what a great question, Sheril. Especially since the mood in Scienceworld seems to be doom, gloom, and defensiveness too often nowadays. We’ve had amazing discoveries but we’re kind of ho-hum about them because, e.g., we haven’t established the truth of string theory or a GUT, and we haven’t developed fusion, and we haven’t cloned people, or something, and we’re jaded.

  9. Andrew

    This could be an incredible article if you actually surveyed people who read lots of scientific papers and posted the most recurring results (with direct links to the PDFs).

  10. John Kwok


    Nature published a list of the ten most important papers on evolution published in the last decade at the beginning of the year. I don’t know whether the Colosimo et al. paper is listed, but I would surely regard it as among the most important in biology for the reasons stated above. As for the paper on Tiktaalik which Marion Delgado contends, I should note that there were at least two major papers from Neil Shubin’s group.

  11. gillt

    “Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli.”

    should be on the list.

  12. These are all idea papers. What about data papers? Perhaps some creature’s genome, or the EPICA ice core.

  13. Jeffrey Beall

    I nominate this one:

    Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics
    Vol. 44: 507-556 (Volume publication date September 2006)

    The Supernova–Gamma-Ray Burst Connection

    S.E. Woosley [1] and J.S. Bloom [2]

    1Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064; email: woosley@ucolick.org
    2Department of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720; email: jbloom@astro.berkeley.edu

    Abstract Observations show that at least some gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) happen simultaneously with core-collapse supernovae (SNe), thus linking by a common thread nature’s two grandest explosions. We review here the growing evidence for and theoretical implications of this association, and conclude that most long-duration soft-spectrum GRBs are accompanied by massive stellar explosions (GRB-SNe). The kinetic energy and luminosity of well-studied GRB-SNe appear to be greater than those of ordinary SNe, but evidence exists, even in a limited sample, for considerable diversity. The existing sample also suggests that most of the energy in the explosion is contained in nonrelativistic ejecta (producing the supernova) rather than in the relativistic jets responsible for making the burst and its afterglow. Neither all SNe, nor even all SNe of Type Ibc produce GRBs. The degree of differential rotation in the collapsing iron core of massive stars when they die may be what makes the difference.

  14. JM

    The first “map” of an extrasolar planet, by Heather Knutson (a grad student at that time!)

    “A map of the day-night contrast of the extrasolar planet HD 189733b”


  15. Jackson J.B.C., Kirby M.X., Berger W.H., Bjorndal K.A., Botsford L.W., Bourque B.J., Bradbury R.H., Cooke R., Erlandson J., Estes J.A., Hughes T.P., Kidwell S., Lange C.B., Lenihan H.S., Pandolfi J.M., Peterson C.H., Steneck R.S., Tegner M.J. & Warner R.R. (2001). Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science, 293, 629-638.

    I think this changed the way a lot of people thing about the impact of fishing on the oceans – that it is not such a recent phenomena. Definitely a game changer for a lot of researchers. Paired with the equally dramatic

    Myers RA, Worm B. 2003. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature 423: 280-283.

    it makes a compelling pair.

  16. Nature 409, 860-921 (15 February 2001) | doi:10.1038/35057062; Received 7 December 2000; Accepted 9 January 2001

    Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome


    Whether you like big data or not, this undoubtedly formed the foundation of much of the work that has followed. I would add the HapMap paper too, if I could have two spots on the list. Both of those affect my work pretty much daily.

    Nature 437, 1299-1320 (27 October 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04226; Received 11 August 2005; Accepted 12 September 2005

    A haplotype map of the human genome


  17. Second for the jebyrnes suggestion of Myers and Worm 2003.

    Here’s a few more.
    Feely, Sabine, Lee, Berelson, Kleypas, Fabry and Millero, Science 16 July 2004:
    Vol. 305. no. 5682, pp. 362 – 366, “Impact of Anthropogenic CO2 on the CaCO3 System in the Oceans”. (Brought ocean acidification to the forefront of climate change thought.)

    Menzel et AL, Global Change Biology, Volume 12 Issue 10, Pages 1969 – 1976, 2006, “European phenological response to climate change matches the warming pattern”. (Hard for the denialists to deny the evidence of nature.)

    Squyres et al. Science, 306 (5702), pages 1709-1714 (2004). “In-situ evidence for an ancient aqueous environment at Meridiani Planum.” (First major Mars Rover paper — definite evidence of past action of water on Mars.)

    Minschwaner, K., and A.E. Dessler, Journal of Climate 17:1272-1282, 2004. Water vapor feedback in the tropical upper troposphere: Model results and observations.

    Fischer et al., Nature 459, 77-80, May 2009, “Upper-mantle volatile chemistry at Oldoinyo Lengai volcano and the origin of carbonatites”.

    Nagler et al. Nature Physics 5: 693, 2009, “Turning solid aluminium transparent by intense soft X-ray photoionization”.

    Porco et al. Science Vol. 311. no. 5766, pp. 1393 – 1401, 2006, “Cassini Observes the Active South Pole of Enceladus”

  18. K.Monoyios

    Definitely the discovery and description of Tiktaalik roseae – in two papers in Nature, April 2006. Tiktaalik’s discovery beautifully illustrates the predictive power of science at a time when many would call that into question. Here are the refs:

    Daeschler , E.B., N.H. Shubin, and F.A. Jenkins, Jr. A Devonian tetrapod-like fish and the
    evolution of the tetrapod body plan. Nature. Vol. 440. pp. 757-763.

    Shubin, N.H., E.B. Daeschler, and F.A. Jenkins, Jr. The Pectoral Fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the
    Origin of the Tetrapod Limb. Nature. Vol. 440. pp. 764-771.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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