How many species will join the Rajah Brooke's birdwing butterfly on the protected list? Credit: J. CARMICHAEL JR/NHPA

Stopping species loss

The United Nations has proclaimed 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, to culminate in an October summit in Nagoya, Japan, that hopes to establish strategies to prevent biodiversity loss — probably by setting out ways to try to halt the current decline by 2050. New ideas are sorely needed: this year, 120 countries will miss a goal set by a 2002 accord to achieve a 'significant reduction' in biodiversity loss.

Planck peeks at the Universe's origin

The first detailed images of the cosmic microwave background sent back by the European Space Agency's Planck mission could alter theories about the origins and structure of the early Universe. Full results won't be officially released until 2012.

Life, but not as we know it

Surely this will be the year when genome pioneer Craig Venter and his team reveal they have booted up a laboratory-made genome inside a living bacterial cell, to create what will be billed as synthetic life.

An Antarctic time machine

An ice core from Antarctica could provide the sort of year-by-year climate records already gathered in the Northern Hemisphere from Greenland. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide Ice Core project is in the final stages of pulling up a 3.4-kilometre-long climate record that covers the past 40,000 years in enough detail to compare how the north and south polar regions warm up, or chill, in relation to one another.

A flood of genomes

The completed Neanderthal genome and the genomes of remaining primates will count among the highlights of another year of ever-cheaper DNA-crunching. Following last year's comprehensive portraits of cancer genomes, medically minded sequencing will continue to focus on the causes of specific diseases, and on spotting more human genetic variants.

Mexico City: the new Copenhagen

Starting in late November, Mexico will be the venue for the next major round of United Nations climate-policy wrangling, where an overdue formal agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change may finally be hammered out. Before then, attention will focus on the action that individual countries need to take on their commitments, on climate legislation in the United States and on international standards to monitor emissions and verify promised reductions.

Earth-like worlds elsewhere

As planet-hunters eagerly await the discovery of an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone around a Sun-like star, they may have to make do this year with an easier target: a potentially hospitable planet around a red dwarf star. NASA's Kepler telescope has already discovered previously unknown planets (see page 15).

Hope for HIV prevention

Early this year, the first clinical trial to use a gel incorporating an antiretroviral drug is expected to release its initial results; several large trials of other microbicides have failed to show benefit in blocking HIV. Early results are also due from long-anticipated trials that look at 'pre-exposure prophylaxis', or administering anti-HIV drugs before risky sex.

A perfect symmetry

Evidence for supersymmetry — the theory that every known fundamental particle has an undiscovered, superheavy partner — may be the most intriguing discovery to come from Europe's Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. The find would be even more bizarre than the anticipated Higgs boson, the particle thought to imbue matter with mass.

Quantum effects go large

Solid objects in physics laboratories could be seen to enter a superposition of states — the real-world version of Schrödinger's mythical cat that is dead and alive at the same time. The effect, predicted by quantum mechanics, has previously been seen in objects no bigger than ions, but could push into the macroscopic realm this year.

Cell reprogramming gets safer

Induced pluripotent stem cells will probably be created from adult cells using small molecules — lessening the risk of tumours, which comes with adding genetic material to a cell. Safer, more efficient reprogramming routes could lead to the field's first therapeutic applications.

Embryonic stem cells go clinical

The first clinical trials of therapies involving human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) could finally come this year. Biotech company Geron, of Menlo Park, California, plans to restart regulator-halted trials of an hESC-derived therapy for patients with spinal-cord injuries.

Space travel crosses frontiers

Among the year's planned space launches are Japan's Akatsuki, to orbit Venus, and China's second lunar probe, Chang'e 2. And as NASA looks set to choose a new direction for its human space-flight programme, a decision that could come early in 2010, the US space-shuttle fleet will make its final outings. These include the July launch of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an instrument to study cosmic rays for evidence of antimatter and dark matter.

X-rays with laser-sharp focus

X-ray free-electron lasers, which produce short pulses of coherent X-ray light, may start to assert their superiority over synchrotrons for imaging. They should enable researchers to make images of single biomolecules without having to crystallize them, and to create detailed movies of molecular events such as protein folding. Data will flow from the first of these facilities, at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California.

Climate computing heats up

Expect increasingly realistic climate models from several recently launched supercomputers, including the Earth Simulator II in Yokohama, Japan, and Blizzard in Hamburg, Germany. As some of the world's 40 most powerful computers, they will improve on two of the largest uncertainties of current simulations: resolving local eddies in ocean circulation, and providing long-term forecasts of cloud behaviour. Blizzard will also incorporate Earth's carbon cycle into its climate models.