The big breakthrough, of course, was the one Charles Darwin made a century and a half ago. By recognizing how natural selection shapes the diversity of life, he transformed how biologists view the world. But like all pivotal discoveries, Darwin’s was a beginning. Concrete genome data allowed researchers to start pinning down the molecular modifications that drive evolutionary change in organisms from viruses to primates. Painstaking field observations shed new light on how populations diverge to form new species–the mystery of mysteries that baffled Darwin himself. Ironically, also this year some segments of American society fought to dilute the teaching of even the basic facts of evolution. With all this in mind, Science has decided to put Darwin in the spotlight by saluting several dramatic discoveries, each of which reveals the laws of evolution in action.
All in the family
The genome data confirm our close kinship with chimps: We differ by only about 1% in the nucleotide bases that can be aligned between our two species, and the average protein differs by less than two amino acids. But a surprisingly large chunk of noncoding material is either inserted or deleted in the chimp as compared to the human, bringing the total difference in DNA between our two species to about 4%.