Scientific American recently came out with its top 10 list of world-changing ideas.
How does the magazine define world-changing? After all, it would be world-changing if you could eradicate world poverty by chanting, “bippity-boppity-boo,” but not particularly realistic. The editors say:
These are not pie-in-the-sky notions but practical breakthroughs that have been proved or prototyped and are poised to scale up greatly. Each has the potential to make what may now seem impossible possible.
Let’s see what ideas are on the verge of transforming our world:
1. Artificial organisms made from man-made molecules
Forget DNA. We might be able to create life from a set of molecules from XNAs that have the same double-helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA). XNA stands for xeno nucleic acid, xeno meaning “foreign.” What makes XNA special is that scientists can create enzymes that enable them to evolve, so XNA can become better at a task, such as attaching itself to a protein.
SciAm says that:
“The fact that XNA is complementary to DNA, yet structurally unique, makes it immediately useful for medicine, biotechnology and biology research. Holliger imagines XNAs that could be injected into the human body to detect early, subtle signs of disease that current technologies miss.“
2. Injectable microbubbles that restore breathing
Within a few minutes of someone stopping breathing, the brain starts to shut down, immediately putting the patient at risk for cardiac arrest and death. Currently, the only solution is to insert a breathing tube into the patient’s mouth, which can take precious minutes.
A new foam-like solution could help buy a crucial 15 minutes or more. Containing oxygen microbubbles, it can be absorbed by the blood within seconds.
In a test, researchers blocked the airways of anesthetized rabbits for 15 minutes. Those injected with the solution were much less likely to go into cardiac arrest or have other organ damage than those who got saline solution—despite not taking a single breath.
3. A cheaper way to clean wastewater
We create a lot of wastewater in realms as diverse as cities, industrial processes and agricultural work. A promising new solution could make the process of cleaning it up much cheaper and less energy-intensive.
Decanoic acid, when heated, absorbs water but also leaves behind contaminants, which can then easily be skimmed away. Cooling the acid then releases the water, making it easy to reuse.
The biggest test will be to create a process that is cheaper than simply dumping the water, which is the most common method for dealing with wastewater.
4. Popping pills to prevent Alzheimer’s
In Colombia, in a family of 300 distantly related people, a single genetic mutation predicts whether members will come down with Alzheimer’s. A study of this family will test early intervention in the form of a drug called crenezumab, to see if it keeps the disease at bay. About three dozen Americans possessing other genetic mutations linked to Alzheimer’s will also be tested to make sure that the results of the Colombia study can be extrapolated to people with other genetic markers for Alzheimer’s.
5. Genome sequencing for fetuses
With one blood sample from the mother, researchers can now get a fetus’s complete genetic sequence. Such screening could detect single-gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs disease long before a fetus is born. That, in turn would give doctors time to try out possible prenatal therapies. This new approach is especially groundbreaking because it does not endanger the life of the mother, nor does it require a trained obstetricians. As Scientific American says, “Some researchers envision do-it-yourself kits that mothers would send to a lab.”
6. A single sustainability index for products
How do you compare the environmental impact of, say, a bottle of laundry detergent versus an LCD screen? The Sustainability Consortium, a group of 10 universities, non-profits and 80 international companies including Walmart and Coca-Cola, are creating an index that includes every step of the supply chain. The group has already released the measure it will use to evaluate its first 100 products.
Right now, a similar rating system, Good Guide, is based solely on public information. The new system would take into account “emissions, waste, labor practices, water usage and other sensitive factors that will become available only as large corporate players exert pressure on suppliers to disclose them,” says Scientific American.
7. ‘Reality mining’ from smartphones
While this gets into a privacy minefield, all the data on us that our smartphones track could, of course, improve knowledge of consumer behavior, plus have public health advantages. For example, relief agencies in Haiti were able to use the location histories logged by cell phones to text users who might have been exposed to cholera. (See: Study finds two ways to forecast cholera outbreaks.) It could also help improve traffic and the electric grid — as long as consumers are willing to share more of this data.
8. Running medical implants on the sugar in our bodies
Pacemakers usually run on lithium batteries, which means they must be replaced every five to 15 years through surgery. But biofuel cells that run on glucose have been shown to work in snails. They may soon work in our own bodies, powering nano-sized medical implants that run on glucose and dispensing targeted drugs.
9. Flexible, wearable electronics
We may soon be able to wear circuits on our bodies like tattoos or wear clothing that has circuits woven into it. One application includes monitoring a person’s vitals and transmitting the readings wirelessly; one NASCAR driver already tested this out, with a patch that tracked his hydration levels, since NASCAR drivers can roast in a cockpit for hours. Another application of interest to the U.S. Army would be to produce flexible solar cells that can be integrated into soldiers’ clothing and backpacks. (Read about an electronic sensor as sensitive as human skin.)
RELATED: Video: Electronics that wrinkle and stretch like skin
10. Civilian uses for drones
The eyes that peer down from the skies won’t only be doing so for the military. As SciAm reports, “civilian enthusiasts are getting into the act, too; they have customized drones to nab polluters, inspect drilling rigs, and take stunning pictures for movies and real estate listings.” They may even be used for journalism, to report on traffic jams or to detect when crops need water.
New advances in drone technology will make this revolution in our skies possible. Smartphone chips are enabling hobbyists to turn radio-controlled aircraft into inexpensive but sophisticated autopilots. The FAA is working with companies to ensure that drones can sense and avoid other flying objects and developing final rules, which are expected to be released in 2015.
What do you think of this list? Are there any developments that you don’t welcome? And which ones are you eager to see?