Sheffield graduate's 'buckyball' listed in top 10 discoveries

Nobel Prize-winning research, carried out by University of Sheffield alumnus Professor Sir Harry Kroto, has been named by fellow academics as one of the ten most important discoveries made by their peers at UK universities in the past 60 years.

A poll of UK academics placed Professor Kroto's 1985 discovery of the microscopic "footballs", known as buckyballs, tenth in a list topped by the discovery of DNA.

The poll, which was carried out to mark Universities Week (14-20 June 2010), placed the discovery of the structure of DNA (unveiled on 28 February 1953) ahead of other key UK university discoveries such as the first computer, Dolly the Sheep, the contraceptive pill and the Internet.

Professor Kroto completed his BSc in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield in 1961, his PhD in 1964, and received an Honorary DSc in 1995. In 1996 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the C60 molecule (Buckminsterfullerene - a new form of carbon). The C60 molecule was created from 60 carbon atoms arranged in the same structure as a football.

Along with his US collaborators Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, Professor Kroto revealed that carbon can exist as tiny spherical molecules, now known as fullerenes or buckyballs. The discovery of a whole family of carbon-cage molecules soon followed, collectively dubbed fullerenes after their similarity to the geodesic domes designed by the late Richard Buckminster Fuller. Fullerenes include football and rugby ball shapes and tubes of carbon, called nanotubes, which sparked the nanotech revolution.

The molecules are incredibly strong, and vary in shape from the prototype ball to rugby balls and tubes, known as nanotubes, which are about 100 times as strong as steel, but as light as the graphite in ordinary pencils - properties that make for endless practical applications.

Professor Kroto, who was invited to announce the poll results, said: "It surely comes as no surprise that DNA has come out top. It is not only pre-eminently important to understanding almost every fundamental aspect of life itself but it is also so beautiful and at the same time so simple in revealing how genetic characteristics are transmitted.

"Despite the fact that the discovery is over 50 years old, this finding is instrumental in every element of our lives and the basis of our understanding about life on Earth.

"This list demonstrates the outstanding level of achievement of research scientists in UK universities and their impact on our everyday lives. Even in another 60 years I hope that this list will inspire people to appreciate the contribution to human knowledge and well-being of researchers in our universities. We have some of the world's best researchers and must continue to value their work if we are to advance our understanding of the world and of what humans are capable."

Notes for Editors: The top 15 discoveries may come as a surprise to many, who perhaps are not aware of how influential UK researchers have been in developing innovations, theories and technologies that have changed our lives.

• DNA - James Watson and Francis Crick unveiled the double helix structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953. DNA is a spiral staircase of molecules that exists in all our cells and contains the recipe for living things and the characteristics that are passed on from one generation to another.
• Genetic fingerprinting - scientists from the University of Leicester developed a technique of identifying individual DNA make-up in 1985. Genetic fingerprints are like real fingerprints in that they are unique to every individual (except identical twins) and have greatly assisted the fight against crime.
• Birth of the first working computer - Two University of Manchester scientists are credited with running the world's first stored programme computer. In the late 1940s and early 1950s they produced a series of breakthroughs in the early development of the computer.
• The contraceptive pill - In 1961 Herchel Smith, a researcher at the University of Manchester, developed an inexpensive way of producing chemicals that can stop women ovulating during their monthly menstrual cycle.
• Cancer and cell division experts from Cancer Research UK were the first to identify the key genes that govern and regulate the cell cycle and cell division in 1987, following early stage research at Oxbridge, which subsequently paved the way for progress in treating cancer.
• CDs, DVDs and the Internet - The Internet, CDs and DVDs have all been made possible through a technology called strained quantum-well lasers that was first proposed by Alf Adams at Surrey University. These lasers work by transforming information into pulses of light, or photons.
• The Gaia hypothesis - While studying the atmosphere on the planet Mars, James Lovelock developed the 'Gaia hypothesis' - the idea of the earth as a self-regulating living organism. This revolutionary understanding of the earth transformed public attitudes towards the environment.
• Eradicating the Tsetse fly - Scientists from the University of Greenwich have been working to eradicate the Tsetse fly from Africa through the use of a novel artificial cow, which attracts the tsetse and kills them through insecticides. The discovery led to a dramatic fall in the fatal sleeping sickness
• Stem cells - Martin Evans' early research at the University of Cambridge led to his discovery of embryonic stem cells - cells so early in their development that they have the potential to grow into the different cells that make-up the human body.
• Microscopic footballs - It was only in 1985 that the third well-defined form of pure carbon was discovered. Harry Kroto at the University of Sussex, and his US collaborators Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, revealed that carbon can exist as tiny spherical molecules, now known as fullerenes or buckyballs.

Following closely behind these key discoveries were Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans; ultrasound scans; the discovery of conclusive evidence of smoking damaging the user's health; the building blocks of insulin and uncovering the body's defence mechanisms, all of which were discovered and progressed by UK university academics.

UK universities are world-renowned for their progressive and innovative research. Internationally, the UK is second only to the US in terms of research papers for clinical, health, environmental, mathematics, and social sciences research, and third behind US and China for research paper output. For total citations (i.e. the referencing of their work to support further research) the UK is second to the US in clinical sciences, health sciences, biological sciences, environmental sciences, social sciences and business. It is above Germany, Japan, France, China, Canada and Italy.

432 UK academics were polled throughout May. The list of the greatest discoveries by UK academics was compiled from the Universities UK publication, Eureka and spans discoveries from the past 60 years.

The inaugural Universities Week takes place from 14-20 June 2010, and aims to increase public awareness of the wide and varied role of the UK's universities. Over 100 universities and linked organisations are involved in the week. Nationwide activity will include open days and debates for members of the public to attend.

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