Nature's contribution to changing the world and the way we think about it

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Nature’s 150th anniversary has been a wonderful excuse to delve into our history. In doing so, we’ve been rediscovering the history of science itself, and by looking at how our formats have changed, we’ve revealed that the way in which research is conducted and reported has evolved significantly over the past century and a half.

Today we are more than a publication platform, not least thanks to our award-winning journalism and ongoing work with research communities to develop new ways of reporting essential experimental details and data, as science becomes increasingly complex. Arguably, though, Nature is best known for its papers, and our pages contain countless examples of inspirational and influential discoveries. But how many of these papers and reports that have appeared in our pages since 1869 have made a difference beyond the walls of classrooms and laboratories?

What follows is a subjective selection of some papers Nature published that have indeed affected our lives — some had direct, practical implications while the effect of others was more conceptual. Special thanks have to go to Nature’s manuscript editors who have helped compile this selection.

Who we are and where we’ve come from

Raymond Dart with Taung

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published ten years before Nature was launched, but his book The Descent of Man appeared in 1871 and you can read a review of the latter in our pages1. Despite growing evidence against the exceptionalism of our species, when Nature published the first fossil link between humans and apes — Australopithecus africanus – in 1925, it was a sensation2. A crop of other publications demonstrating humans’ rich and branching prehistory and evolution followed, most notable among them being the 2004 description of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the hobbit3. The discovery left its mark not only on the scientific community, but also on the arts — in 2005, Damien Hurst unveiled an artist’s representation of the hobbit skull in a painting entitled A New and Diminutive Species of Human Being Has Been Discovered4. The finding of H. floresiensis was entirely unexpected and completely changed the face of anthropology, showing that the world of fossil hominins was much richer — and much less well understood — than had been thought.

Description of the double helical structure of DNA, published in 1953, is arguably the most famous paper Nature has ever published5. The structure itself elegantly suggested how the molecule might self-replicate. The discovery revolutionized biology. Much later, following the publication of the human genome sequence in 2001 (Nature published the results of the open, publicly funded international effort6), comparative genomics taught us that our own genome sequence only differs by not much more than 1% from that of a chimpanzee. Comparative genomics of different human populations also discredited the idea of a biological basis for the concept of race.

DNA sequencing was also applied to extinct species, including our close relatives, Neanderthals7. It was also used to identify a previously completely unknown hominin group — the Denisovans8. Sequencing later revealed that not only did our ancestors co-exist with both Neanderthals and Denisovans9, but that they also had offspring with one another10. The history of our own species was being well and truly redrawn.

The Universe and our place within it

From the very beginning, readers of our pages could learn important lessons about the workings of the Universe — not surprisingly, given that our founding editor, Norman Lockyer, was himself an astronomer. From the account in 1919 of Arthur Eddington’s crucial observational confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity11 through to the discovery in 1968 of pulsars (which, incidentally, later allowed astronomers to indirectly confirm the existence of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein), Nature has always had its eye firmly on the heavens.

Intriguingly, it was around one such pulsar (a rapidly rotating neutron star12) that the first planets outside our Solar System were detected in 1992. Barely three years later, a planet was detected orbiting a Sun-like star other than our own, and so the field of ‘exoplanets’ was born13. This latter discovery won Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz their Nobel Prize in Physics this year. The most important impact of this (and subsequent discoveries of hundreds of other exoplanets) is the realization that conditions to support life not unlike our own might exist elsewhere in the Universe. That possibility remains to be confirmed, of course.

Closer to Earth, in 1974, Nature published work by Molina and Rowland, in which they established that chlorine originating from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was an agent of ozone destruction14. In May 1985, Farman and colleagues at the British Antarctic Survey reported that spring ozone levels over Antarctica were much lower than expected15. The authors correctly predicted that CFCs were responsible. The chemical mechanism that they proposed turned out to be wrong, but was corrected in a flurry of papers by Susan Solomon16, Paul Crutzen17, Michael McElroy18 and their colleagues.

The discovery of the ‘hole’ in Earth’s ozone layer over Antarctica provided evidence to scientists, politicians and the public that human activity could modify the global environment within just a couple of generations. This realization led to the Montreal Protocol in 1989, an international agreement to cut ozone-depleting substances.

In 2009, Nature published two papers19,20 and a News & Views21 that introduced the idea of cumulative carbon emissions, a remaining carbon budget in the context of the climate mitigation debate. The reports were influential in the subsequent policy debate and in how the mitigation issue is communicated. Ultimately, they may have contributed to the concept of individual and national carbon footprints.

Twenty-first-century medicine

It is impossible to imagine modern medicine without X-rays. Although the rays discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen were first described in detail in a German journal, a short translated version of that report appeared in Nature back in 189622.

MRI – magnetic resonance imaging – is routinely used in medical imaging for diagnosis and monitoring or staging disease progression, and was first described in Nature’s pages in 197323.

Two years later, Nature carried the first description of monoclonal antibodies, which went on to revolutionize diagnostic testing and treatment, including that of many types of cancer24. Think of a cancer drug name that ends in ‘mab’ and it will be a monoclonal antibody-based drug.

Cancer is a highly heterogeneous disease, hence the requirement for diverse, tailor-made treatments. One example that relies on ALK inhibitors and is used in a subtype of lung cancers was developed following a discovery of alterations in an enzyme called ALK kinase present in 5% of lung cancers, especially in non-smokers and in women25. The first ALK inhibitor — crizotinib — was approved in 2011 for use in patients with these lung cancers only three years after the Nature paper was published.

In 1997, Dolly became the world’s most famous sheep when Ian Wilmut and colleagues described in the pages of Nature the first mammal to be cloned from adult stem cells26. But, arguably, it wasn’t the whole-animal cloning that endured as the legacy of this work; instead, it spurred on research into the use of adult stem cells, leading to the emergence of tissue engineering and the promise of its use in therapy. One of the most fascinating aspects of science is that you never fully know what a discovery will lead to, and the implications can sometimes have a huge impact — not only on further scientific discoveries but on society, too. Arguably, even more relevant to the emergence of tissue engineering and its use in therapy was the isolation and culture of embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos in 198127. The properties of these cells are unique: they can divide indefinitely into daughter cells while retaining the ability to turn into every type of cell in the body. At first, this was a unique opportunity for biologists to study early embryonic development and the amazing properties of pluripotent stem cells. But when similar cells were later isolated from human preimplantation embryos, the potential to generate cells for treatments of diseases, to use them for drug screening, and to modify their genetic information became more tangible.

In 2017, Nature published a case study of a seven-year old child who was treated for a severe genetic autoimmune skin condition; his treatment involved isolating his skin cells, correcting a genetic defect underlying his condition, growing these corrected cells into skin in a lab and subsequently transplanting this skin onto his body28. Although such treatment is far from being routine today, the study shows what one day could well be the norm.

The realization that microorganisms inhabit our bodies goes back a long way, but it was the 2012 publication of a catalogue of human-dwelling microbes, the Human Microbiome Project, that showed our bodies may be less ours than we think29. Subsequent studies have revealed the links between gut microbiome and health, leading many to modify their diets. Studies of the vaginal microbiome uncovered the importance of vaginal birth in the shaping of the newborn immune system.

Material world and technology

The early part of the twentieth century saw a revolution in our understanding of the very nature of matter itself. We came to understand the nature of isotopes30 and the existence of neutrons was proposed31. And then, in 1939, Nature published a paper by Meitner and Frisch in which they described nuclear fission — a process whereby the addition of a neutron would induce the uranium nucleus to split32. Their discovery lies at the heart of nuclear energy but also nuclear weapons and, as such, is possibly the best example of harnessing knowledge for positive and negative use.

Digitalization and the Internet are likely to be the most significant recent developments. Back in 1948, Nature carried a report that the University of Manchester's Small-Scale Experimental Machine, nicknamed the 'Baby', successfully executed its first-ever computer program33. Today’s reliance on computing power is so pervasive that is only noted when it is no longer sufficient for a given task at hand. Quantum computing, with its promise of vastly increased speed and computational power, is often thought to be the solution. While the technology still has some way to go, an important early step came in 1997 when Nature published a paper describing experimental quantum teleportation, which opened the possibility of quantum memory34. But are the much-anticipated advantages of a hypothetical quantum computer anything more than wishful theoretical thinking? Hot off the press, the answer seems to be in the affirmative35.

Until 1985, pure carbon was thought to exist in two crystalline forms only – diamond and graphite. Demonstration of the existence of carbon 60— later called buckminsterfullerene after a US inventor and architect, Richard Buckminster Fuller — revolutionized thinking in materials science36. Close on the heels of these tiny balls of carbon made up of precisely 60 atoms came carbon nanotubes37, then graphene, and the whole world of so-called 2D materials. These showed an array of new and unexpected material properties, which continue to surprise us.

Today, many of us are moving away from the printed word for environmental reasons, opting to read online or on e-readers. Few realize that e-ink — the functional basis of many popular e-readers — was first described in 1998 in the pages of Nature; the abstract of this paper ended tantalisingly: “This system may satisfy the practical requirements of electronic paper.”38

Nevertheless, when a paper copy of a document is required, it is often printed on an ink-jet printer. In a seemingly unlikely way, a 1997 Nature paper studying the physics of ring-like deposits along the perimeter of a spilled drop of coffee helped to optimize the performance of printing in ink-jet printers.39

Although it is sometimes possible to link a game-changing application or a radically new concept to a single paper, in most cases this is not so. Ideas build up gradually, across many publications and journals. As we celebrate the contributions that Nature was lucky to publish, we would all do well to remember the often-quoted words of Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”


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