Friday, December 18, 2009

2010: A Science Odyssey

Crystal ball courtesy of Crystal Blue in Little Five. Photo by Carol Clark.

Anyone remember the Y2K scare? Fears that a fluke of technology would cause our entire digital world to crash with the 2000 calendar rollover were a mere distraction. As we enter 2010, we're hoping technology can save us from climate change.

The first decade of the 21st century flew by, with changes coming at breakneck speed. It's a good time to peer into the crystal ball of research. eScienceCommons asked Emory scientists for their views on key advances during the past 10 years, and what may be in store by 2020.

"The most important thing that's happened is the recalibration of our perception of the world, and a clarification of the real challenges," says David Lynn, chair of chemistry. "That relates to everything from how we understand the origins of life, to the emerging focus on predictive health, and our increased understanding of the need for renewable energy."

Lynn cited the sequencing of the human genome and the identification of new planets as two events that shook the foundations of our social structure.
NASA photo

“The existence of other planets was predicted decades ago, but now we’ve accumulated hard evidence that we’re clearly not alone – our solar system is not the only one,” he says. “And what are we going to look for on these other planets that could allow life to emerge and evolution to start? I think that is where the fun begins.”

The fast pace of discovery contributed to a polarization of views on research, particularly in areas such as stem cells and evolution.

“The theme of our recent Evolution Revolution conference was that the world is changing very quickly, and we need to understand what that means so we can make better informed decisions,” Lynn says. “The important problems, and the fact that many are interconnected, have become more clearly defined. This clarification attracts people’s attention, and means the chance of finding viable solutions goes way up.”

Emory chemists are using “directed evolution” to study ways to reprogram bacteria to perform useful tasks, from fighting disease to producing renewable hydrogen fuel.

"We are taking principles that are central to evolution and probing them to use in different ways," Lynn says.  "It's a great time to be a scientist -- the sky is no longer the limit."

For neuroscientist Elaine Walker, one of the biggest breakthroughs was the growing awareness of genetic plasticity, or the idea that DNA is not necessarily destiny. "In the past, it was generally assumed that with only a few exceptions the individual genotype was fixed at conception, and that its effects on human health and disease were relatively fixed across the life span," Walker says.

In recent years, however, we've learned that genetic mutations in the form of copy number variations and microdeletions occur much more frequently than was previously assumed. "It now appears that these mutations can occur in embryogenesis, and that they can confer risks for autism, schizophrenia and a range of other disorders," Walker says.
Adding to this paradigm shift is our understanding of epigenetics: changes in the expression of genes due to a person's physical and psycho-social environment. "I think during the next decade, we're going to see more focus on applications of epigenetics for the treatment of everything from cancer to heart disease," says Victor Corces, chair of biology and one of the pioneers of the field.

We have also learned that the brain changes significantly across the life span, a finding that overlaps with genetic plasticity. "These developments have made our research much more complex," Walker says, "but they also provide us with much more optimism about our opportunities to prevent illness."
Walker is studying whether it might be possible to identify the changes in gene expression occurring in some young people that are causing a change in brain funciton that can put them at risk for psychotic disorders.

The theory of grounded cognition has revolutionized studies of the mind during the past decade, says psychologist Larry Barsalou, a leading researcher in this field. "Previously, it was argued that you could study the cognitive system in isolation. Now we realize that you cannot understand cognition without grounding it into the body and the sensory motor system and the world," he explains.
When you think about walking, for instance, your brain fires the same parts that operate when you are actually walking.
Research is increasingly showing the impact of social processes, culture, development and emotion on cognition, he adds. “I think that during the next 10 to 30 years, theories and research of cognition processes and social processes will be increasingly integrated.”
Everything needs to be studied from an interdisciplinary perspective, Barsalou says. "A big question is how to build programs that foster this kind of work. Psychology departments are becoming very strange beasts."
Deboleena Roy’s research spans women’s studies, philosophy, neuroscience and bioethics. During the past decade, the long struggle of women and minorities to be included in clinical trials began paying off, she says. Studies of biological differences can raise thorny issues about race and gender, she adds, stressing that we need to move forward with knowledge of the mistakes of history.

"People who are the subject of research need to be involved in generating the research questions," Roy says. "The day of the scientist in a white coat working alone in a lab is over. Scientists have to learn to connect to the broader community."

Biologists Nicole Gerardo and James Taylor are taking DNA sequencing to the next level, by tapping cutting-edge technology to analyze the sequence of a complex system, the world of agricultural ants.

“We’re entering completely new territory,” says Taylor, a computer scientist specialized in bioinformatics. “DNA sequencing technology is becoming faster and cheaper, but this transition is just happening.”
Within five years, he adds, the complex data sets he is mining through a grant will likely become much cheaper and more easily obtainable.

Psychologist Joe Manns, whose work focuses on the biology of memory, views the use of genetically engineered mice and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as transformational. While both these technologies were developed prior to the past decade, they matured and hit their stride during the past 10 years, he says.

He believes that the emerging technology of optogenetics – using high-speed optics to control genetically targeted neurons – will likely help fuel memory discoveries in the coming decade.
“Now we can put a wire into a brain and induce neurons within a region of the brain to fire, but we can’t control which neurons,” Mann says. “Optogenetics gives you anatomical precision, allowing you to target a specific neuron, along with temporal precision, because the pulses of light operate in milliseconds.”

The past decade saw wireless devices like iPods and iPhones become almost physical extensions of the human body. Google became a household word – both as a noun and a verb – as search engine technology connected our collective digital mind.

Search personalization, coupled with advances in wireless handheld devices and biometrics such as eye-tracking, will further speed changes in Web search, predicts Eugene Agichtein, who directs the Emory Intelligent Information Access Lab. “Ten years from now, computerized searches will look much different than they do today — you won’t be just typing words into a box on a screen,” he says.

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