Looking Ahead in Science

Stephen DeAngelis

December 01, 2010

The end of the year is always an interesting time. In addition to the holiday excitement it brings, the end of the year also causes people to reflect on both the past and the future. Carl Zimmer from the New York Times recently interviewed 10 scientists from “10 widely scattered disciplines, from genomics to mathematics to earth science,” in order to obtain their prognostications about scientific discoveries that might make headlines during the coming year [“Voices: What’s Next in Science,” 9 November 2010]. He writes:

“Scientists can’t say what they’ll be discovering 10 years from now. But they do pay careful attention to the direction in which their fields are moving, and they have some strong hunches about where they are headed in the year ahead.”

The first interviewee, Heidi B. Hammel, senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute, focuses on “the Dawn spacecraft [that] will get to orbit around a very large asteroid called Vesta in July.” Zimmer explains why this will be important:

“Asteroids first formed at the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, developing into small proto-planets. The biggest asteroids, like the 330-mile-wide Vesta, might have even grown into full-blown planets if not for the pull of Jupiter’s powerful gravitational field. Since then, collisions have blasted asteroids apart into smaller bodies. Astronomers want to know just how planetlike asteroids like Vesta became. It’s possible, for example, that Vesta developed a heavy core and might even have a magnetic field. Once the Dawn takes a close look at Vesta, it will move on to another giant asteroid, Ceres, which has water-bearing minerals and perhaps even a weak atmosphere. By comparing the two asteroids, astronomers hope to learn about early planet formation.”

I’m a little surprised that Dr. Hammel didn’t somehow tie the research on asteroids to helping find a solution for potentially life-ending asteroids that could be heading for a catastrophic collision with the earth. Where’s the imagination! That connection would make the research so much more enticing to the public! After all, earlier this year scientists warned that “a massive asteroid might crash into Earth in the year 2182” [“Massive asteroid could hit Earth in 2182, warn scientists,” by Niall Firth, Daily Mail, 28 July 2010].

The second interviewee was Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University. He believes that in 2011 the world will begin “to get a sense of just how much marine biodiversity is out there.” Zimmer continues:

“In 2000, an international network of 2,700 scientists began the Census of Marine Life, the most ambitious attempt in scientific history to catalog the life dwelling in the world’s oceans. After a decade of trawling the seas and making 30 million observations, the project came to an end this year. The researchers unveiled dazzling photographs of some of the 6,000 or so new species they discovered. Now they are busy crunching the data to come up with estimates of how many species of animals and other organisms are in the oceans. Next year, they may start to offer rough estimates, as well as hypotheses for why the diversity is high in some places and low in others. Dr. Pimm is particularly interested in what the census researchers will discover about how widespread species are in the ocean. On land, much of the world’s diversity is made up of species with very small ranges. Their limited habitats also make them vulnerable to human disturbances, which is why so many animals and plants on land are threatened. If the diversity of the oceans is also built on narrow-range species, such a finding might raise concern about the risk of extinction in the oceans as well.”

The health of the world’s oceans has been a topic of much discussion over the past couple of years. As you are aware, the oil spill from a BP drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico drew much of the attention. Another topic that was widely discussed was growing islands of garbage found in most of the world’s oceans. For more on that topic, read my post entitled Turning Trash into Treasure.

Zimmer’s third interviewee was Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research & Development at the Institute for the Future. Like me you might have found the topic of gaming a bit of surprise in an article about science. But Dr. McGonigal says, “We’re going to see games tackling women’s rights. We’re going to see games around climate change. We’re going to see games around medical innovation, that doctors are going to play.” Zimmer continues:

“In August, the journal Nature published a paper on protein folding with 56,000 co-authors. Researchers at the University of Washington had set up a program that ran on people’s idle computers, using their free computer power to search for the accurate shape of proteins. But they eventually realized that the people who owned the computers themselves could help nudge the molecules into their proper shape. The scientists took advantage of this crowd-sourced intelligence with a game, called Foldit, that allowed people to compete with each other to become championship folders. Foldit’s community of online gamers exploded, and they’ve driven the science of protein folding forward accordingly. The growth of broadband Internet access and computer speed has made online games a force to be reckoned with. The world spends three billion hours a week on online games, and that investment is only going to grow. Many people play war games and medieval adventures, but Dr. McGonigal predicts that in 2011 unconventional games with real-world impact will become much more prominent.”

To learn more about Foldit, read a short article by Darren Quick entitled “Tetris-like video game used to solve medical puzzles” [Gizmag, 5 August 2010]. Julie Wan reports, “The video gaming industry has penetrated academia, offering researchers and students a new way to understand techniques that aren’t always easy to teach. In pockets around the country, some video game companies are veering away from the entertainment industry to focus solely on creating what they call ‘serious games.’ One company, Breakaway Games in Hunt Valley, an East Coast gaming development hub just outside Baltimore, has switched completely in the past three years to developing only games for training. Its clients include the medical schools at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University.” [“Playing doctor: Learning about slips of the knife better on ‘patients’ than patients,” Washington Post, 7 November 2010].

The fourth scientist interviewed by Zimmer was Michael J. McPhaden, senior scientist at Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. His predictions focus on how the oceans affect the rest of the earth rather than how the rest of earth affects the oceans. Zimmer writes:

“The oceans, covering 70 percent of the planet, remain a barely explored world. … Early oceanographers paid more attention to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; … nevertheless, ocean scientists have been finding evidence that the Indian Ocean is a very interesting place. In fact, the circulation of the ocean and its changing temperature can drive major changes in the atmosphere that can affect the entire planet. Every month or two, these fluctuations send up towering clouds that travel east. Depending on the time of year, these disturbances can affect the monsoons over India, the rainfall in the northwestern United States or hurricanes forming in the Atlantic. Known as the Madden-Julian oscillation, it is so powerful that its winds can even speed up and slow down the rotation of the Earth. In October 2011, an international team of scientists will be converging on the Indian Ocean for a campaign called Dynamo (short for Dynamics of the Madden-Julian Oscillation). Deploying sensors across much of the ocean, they will try to track an oscillation from its earliest stages. If Dynamo is a success, it will help scientists understand the conditions that trigger a new oscillation and how to predict its effects far and wide.”

It’s really not surprising that 20 percent of the people that Zimmer interviewed were looking at scientific research related to oceans. Dan Laffoley writes, “Few people may realize it, but in addition to producing most of the oxygen we breathe, the ocean absorbs some 25 percent of current annual carbon dioxide emissions. Half the world’s carbon stocks are held in plankton, mangroves, salt marshes and other marine life. So it is at least as important to preserve this ocean life as it is to preserve forests, to secure its role in helping us adapt to and mitigate climate change.” [“To Save the Planet, Save the Seas,” New York Times, 27 December 2009]. Climate change is also the focus of Zimmer’s fifth interviewee, Ken Caldeira, climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution. Caldeira prognosticates that when it comes to predicting climate change “improvements will be modest, and not represent a quantum leap in predictive capability.” Zimmer writes:

“Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes reports on the state of climate science and what we can expect from the climate in the future. In its latest report, published in 2007, the group concluded that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the billions of tons of greenhouse gases that humans have pumped into the atmosphere. The panel also made projections into the future, basing each one on different assumptions about how human society will change over the next century. If the population peaks around 2050 and the world’s economies shift toward information technology and service industries, the panel projects that by 2100 the average global temperature will likely rise between 1.1 and 2.9 degrees C. If, on the other hand, the world continues to rely on fossil fuels for its economic growth, the panel projects a likely rise of 2.4 to 6.4 degrees. The climate models the I.P.C.C. used in 2007 were substantially more sophisticated than previous ones. But climate scientists at the time could see plenty of room for improvement. The 2007 I.P.C.C. report shied away from giving an upper boundary for sea level rise, for example. By the time the 2007 report was published, climate scientists were already developing a new set of models for the next I.P.C.C. report.”

The reason that prediction models are so important is because they are used to make important and expensive policy decisions. Get the predictions wrong one way or the other and you either waste money or fail to do enough. Although Zimmer indicates that the IPCC’s worst prediction has the global temperatures rising between 2.4 and 6.4 degrees Celsius, the United Nations Environment Program predicts the “planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit [3.5 degrees Celsius] by the end of the century even if the world’s leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges.” [“New Analysis Brings Dire Forecast Of 6.3-Degree Temperature Increase,” by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, 25 September 2009]. Eilperin reports that the UN prediction represents a “much faster and broader scale of change than forecast just two years ago [i.e., in 2007].” The fact that Dr. Caldeira doesn’t believe we’ll see much better forecasting in the immediate future means that the debates about climate change are likely to rage on.

Zimmer’s sixth interviewee, David Haussler, Director of the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at the University of Santa Cruz, moves us out of the environmental sciences into biotechnology. Dr. Haussler believes we will be hearing a lot more about genomes next year. Zimmer continues:

“It took 15 years and $3 billion to sequence the first human genome. Today the cost is down to $20,000, and is expected to continue to drop in years to come. As the price falls, scientists are sequencing human genomes at a faster rate. Strictly speaking, however, each of us carries many different genomes, rather than just one. Every time a cell divides, there’s a small chance that it will make a mistake in copying its genes. The mutations that cancer cells acquire, for example, are often crucial for their ability to spread and resist chemotherapy. Immune cell genomes change as well, but most of the time those changes keep us healthy rather than make us sick. By rearranging certain stretches of their DNA, immune cells can create new genes for antibodies and receptors. The International Cancer Genome Consortium started up in April, with the goal of sequencing 25,000 genomes from a wide range of cancers. Next year, we will see some of the first fruits of this collaboration. Dr. Haussler also predicts that the first immune cell genomes will make their debut. Both lines of research could lead to different kinds of genome-based medicine. Cancer genomics could allow doctors to select drugs with the best chances of killing a tumor. Immune genomics could let them survey the state of the immune system as it battles infections or as it learns to tolerate a transplanted organ.”

There are likely to be a number of breakthroughs in the medical field in the years ahead. One interesting look into the future of cancer treatment was recently aired on a new show that can be found on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green entitled “Dean of Invention” featuring inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen (probably best known as the inventor of the Segway). One of the shows first few episodes focused “on developments in ‘microbot technology,’ or efforts to create tiny machines that may someday heal the human body without the need for surgery.” [“The Dean of Invention: Segway Mastermind Probes Sci-Tech’s Future,” by Larry Greenemeier, Scientific American, 21 October 2010]. Greenemeier continues:

“The episode begins with [co-host Joanne] Colan visiting the lab of Brad Kratochvil at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he and his team are developing miniature robots powered by magnets. Kratochvil describes how these microbots might someday be injected into the eye to perform high-precision retinal repairs without invasive surgery. Kamen praises Kratochvil’s work but then points to some of the challenges the technology may face moving forward, for example the fact that magnetism is effective over only short distances. This takes Kamen to the show’s second segment, where he meets with researchers Sylvain Martel and Evan Shechter at Montréal Polytechnic School, who use MRI magnets to steer microbots (30 times smaller than Kratochvil’s) designed to move throughout the body’s circulatory system. When placed in the vicinity of a cancerous tumor, these tiny delivery robots would release a payload of cancer-fighting medicine. Noting that many cancers are not localized in individual tumors but instead spread throughout the body, Kamen spends the show’s third and final segment interviewing Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) scientists Sangeeta Bhatia and Geoffrey von Maltzahn, who more recently joined venture capital firm Flagship Ventures. Von Maltzahn and Bhatia are developing ways to use nanobots nearly 500 times smaller than Montréal Polytechnic’s microbots that can find their way to cancerous tumors without needing to be guided from outside the body.”

The next two interviewees were also from the bio-med sector. André A. Fenton, visiting professor at the Center for Neural Science at N.Y.U., expects that during the coming year scientists will map “the physical organization of a memory within the brain.” Zimmer continues:

“For decades neuroscientists searched through the brain, in pursuit of physical markers of memories. They found evidence that memories form through the contact of neurons. They grow new branches to communicate with other neurons, and old branches become stronger or weaker. In just the past few years, Dr. Fenton and other researchers have discovered that one molecule present in those branches, known as PKMzeta, maintains memories. Block PKMzeta, and the memory vanishes. This discovery opens up an exciting prospect. Scientists could train animals to perform some simple task and then compare the brains of the animals that learned with those of the ones that didn’t. There should be a unique sprinkling of PKMzeta molecules in the animals that formed the new memory. Scientists could then map all the neurons and their branches that were required for the animals to remember what they learned. For the first time in history, scientists would be able to see a memory.”

To learn more about the mind and memories, read my post entitled The Amazing Mind. Staying in the medical field, Zimmer’s eighth interviewee was Rob Carlson, a Principal at Biodesic. Dr. Carlson predicts that “this year someone will show how to go from an adult peripheral blood draw to pluripotent stem cells. It means anyone who wants to try to make stem cells will be able to give it a whirl.” Zimmer continues:

“The cells in an embryo can give rise to any kind of tissue in the adult body. But once they commit to being muscle cells, neurons or some other type of cell, there’s usually no going back. A huge amount of research has gone into finding a way to induce adult cells to turn back into so-called pluripotent stem cells. Someday it might be possible to use them to grow back damaged organs from a person’s own cells. In September, Derrick J. Rossi and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School created artificial versions of RNA molecules, the templates that cells use to build proteins. They bathed human cells in a cocktail of five kinds of RNA molecules. The cells took in the RNA and made proteins that reprogrammed them into pluripotent stem cells. Rossi’s method has a drawback as well, however: he and his colleagues used a type of cell called a fibroblast. To gather these cells, they have to do an invasive biopsy and then culture the cells to get enough fibroblasts for their experiment. This July, Dr. George Q. Daley of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues had success using a different route: they drew blood from healthy human donors and genetically reprogrammed the cells to become pluripotent stem cells. Next year, Dr. Carlson predicts, scientists will combine these methods: they will draw a little blood, place it in a cocktail of RNA and — voilá! — stem cells. This advance would make producing stem cells cheap, fast and relatively easy. In fact, it may even be possible for dedicated amateurs to set up stem cell labs in their own garage.”

Frankly, the thought of some brilliant teenager setting up a stem cell lab in his garage is a bit creepy. Nevertheless, a way of cheaply mass producing stem cells will likely result in medical options for treating a wide variety of ailments. It’s pretty exciting stuff. Gautim Naik reports, “Scientists have made partly functioning rat lungs in the laboratory, a small yet tantalizing step in the quest to create fresh body parts for transplantation or to treat disease.” [“Scientists Build a Rat Lung,” Wall Street Journal, 25 June 2010]. He continues:

“A team led by researchers from Yale University took apart rats’ lungs and rebuilt them with new cells in a glass jar. When transplanted into live rats for a few hours, the new organs successfully exchanged oxygen and carbon dioxide, just as natural lungs do. … The study, funded by Yale and the National Institutes of Health, builds on a handful of similar groundbreaking experiments of recent years. A breakthrough using the same technique occurred in 2008, when University of Minnesota researchers created a beating rat heart in the lab. In a June 13 paper in Nature Medicine, scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere described how they had used the method to create a rat liver. … Regenerative medicine is a hot field. Lab scientists are trying to regenerate everything from simpler body parts—skin or arteries—to more complex organs, such as the uterus. In 2006, Dr. Atala and his colleagues described how they used a patient’s tissue to create the first lab-made bladder. More challenging yet is the effort to remake solid organs, such as the liver and lung.”

Zimmer’s ninth interviewee, Charles M. Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering, predicts that biotechnology and engineering are disciplines destined to move forward together. “We’re going to see in surprisingly short order that biological inspiration and biological processes will become central to engineering real systems,” Vest predicts. “It’s going to lead to a new era in engineering.” Zimmer continues:

“In the 20th century, engineers and biologists dwelt in different universes. The biologists picked apart cells and tissues to see how they worked, while the engineers designed bridges, buildings and factories based on what they understood about physics and chemistry. In recent years, however, engineers have begun paying very close attention to life. Evolution has fine-tuned living things for billions of years, giving them many of the properties — efficiency, strength, flexibility — that engineers love. Now biologically inspired engineering is taking hold in many engineering departments. In some cases, engineers are trying to mimic nature. In other cases, they are actually incorporating living things into their designs. Researchers at Delft University in the Netherlands, for example, are developing bacteria-laced concrete. When cracks form, the bacteria wake from dormancy and secrete limestone, in effect healing the concrete. Next year, Dr. Vest expects, more of these lifelike designs will come to light, and they will keep coming for many years.”

To learn more about how scientists, engineers, and designers are learning from nature, read my posts entitled Turning to Nature to Save Energy, Learning from Nature, and Learning from Nature II. Zimmer’s tenth and final interviewee, Steven Strogatz, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, predicts, “We’re going to see scientific results that are correct, that are predictive, but are without explanation.” Does that sound confusing and discomforting? Well, Professor Strogatz says, “Computers will tell us things that are true, and we won’t understand them.” He laments that we’ll just have to live with that truth. Zimmer continues:

“Computers have been taking over more and more of the things humans used to do, including getting driving directions and operating subway trains. They’ve even started making serious inroads into the heart of science. Rather than just churning out simulations or pretty pie charts, computers can do what scientists have traditionally done: find mathematical equations that explain complicated data. Eureqa, for example, is an ‘automated scientist’ created by a Cornell engineer, Hod Lipson, and his students. In 2009, they reported that simply by observing a pendulum, Eureqa can rediscover some of Newton’s laws of physics. In 2011, automated scientists are poised to make major contributions to science. Dr. Lipson and his students are looking for hidden patterns in the networks of proteins that break down food in cells, for example, and they’ve set up a Web site where people can download Eureqa free of charge and discover laws of nature for themselves. Automated scientists may speed up the pace of discovery, but in the process they may change the nature of science itself. For centuries, scientists have solved problems with flashes of insight. But while the equations that automated scientists offer are very good at making predictions, they are often inscrutable to human scientists. We may have to program computers to explain their discoveries to us. Otherwise they will become more like oracles than scientists, handing down mysterious utterances to us mere mortals.”

As a side note, I was so impressed with a series of articles written by Professor Strogatz that provided simple explanations of mathematical concepts that I wrote post about them entitled Understanding Data. Taken as whole, I think you will agree with me that Zimmer has provided us with some wonderful food for thought concerning the coming year. In the weeks ahead, I provide posts on other predictions that people are making about the future in various areas as I run across them.