WASHINGTON - Research that led to new AIDS drugs and to a new understanding of how the virus infects cells has been named the "Breakthrough of the Year" for 1996 by Science, a leading scientific journal.
Evidence for ancient life on Mars is the first runner up in the annual selection by the journal of the top 10 research achievements of the year.
Other cited breakthroughs include development of a new type of laser, discovery that the Earth core spins faster than its surface, and findings in genetics, cell biology, the immune system and infectious disease.
Science said that 1996 brought "a series of stunning breakthroughs both in AIDS treatment and in basic research on HIV, the virus that causes the disease."
Drugs called protease inhibitors, which attack HIV in a new way, became widely available in 1996 for the first time. Studies showed that when combined with earlier drugs, the protease inhibitors caused the blood concentrations of HIV virus in some patients to drop to undetectable levels, a result the journal called "a major victory."
Equally promising, said Science, is the discovery of three natural proteins, called chemokines, that suppress HIV infection of cells. This finding "may one day blossom into new treatments or even vaccines," said the journal.
"Although AIDS remains a scourge of our era ... 1996 marks a turning point in the frustrating 15-year battle against the disease," Science said.
"Startling new answers" about how and where life began was considered by Science as the second most important breakthrough research of 1996.
The journal cited work by a NASA-led team reported in August that a meteorite from Mars contained chemical and fossilized evidence that microbes existed on the red planet millions of years ago. The conclusion still is hotly debated and no consensus supporting the NASA team has been reached among scientists.
Science also noted that research in Greenland found evidence that life on Earth appeared about 3.8 billion years ago. The journal said additionally that studies of a microbe that lives in the superheated water of a volcanic vent on the ocean floor shows that the organism belongs to a third domain of life because its genetic structure is unlike that of bacteria or of plants and animals.
Other breakthroughs selected by Science:
3. Prions, or proteinaceous infectious particles, became hot research targets because scientists suspect them of causing bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in British cattle. BSE is thought to be related to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, crippling neurological disorder of humans. Discovery of BSE in the cattle led to a ban in Europe of British beef imports and prompted a $63.5 million research program into prions and BSE.
4. Every major scientific publication and thousands of researchers have moved into cyberspace, using the computer internet to exchange information and to publish new findings.
5. Laser researcher made the first blue-light laser from gallium-nitride semiconductor chips, a development that could lead to a quadrupling of information storage in computer disks.
6. Researchers were able to form protein crystals from the molecules that make up receptors on the surface of T lymphocytes. This advance will help scientists design drugs that will affect the way these immune system cells respond to disease.
7. From 30 years of data, researchers conclude that the iron core of the Earth spins slightly faster than the crust of the planet. The difference is enough to give the core a full turn ahead of the rest of the planet every 400 years.
8. European researchers have sequenced 12 million base pairs that contain the entire 6,000 gene pattern of baker's yeast. This single cell fungi is a favorite research tool for learning about the function of genes, including some that animals and yeast have in common.
9. Studies of animal embryos are helping research find the proteins that cause cells to differentiate into the appropriate organs.
10. Researchers in 1996 found new genes that play in the programmed death of cells. It is now clear that each cell has genes that order the cell's suicide under certain conditions and that failure of this function may play a role in cancer.
Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest organization of professional scientists from all fields in the world.