3 Innovations from 2015

by Jennifer Wang

This year, Scientific American published a list of 10 innovations coming in 2016. Among them were things such as eye controlled prosthetics, little fusion machines, heat vacuums, and cameras that can see around walls. Below are brief summaries of three of those innovations.


Microwave Rocketry

1_microwaverocketryOne of the largest challenges of going into space is the cost of the rockets used in escaping Earth’s atmosphere. According to Scientific American, it can cost anywhere between $5,000 to $50,000 to send one kilogram of matter into space. With only the fuel and propellent accounting for 90% of a rocket’s weight, one of the main contributors to the high cost is the large amount of fuel required and the large amount of space required to hold it. One idea proposed in 1924 was microwave rocketry, using beams of microwaves from Earth to heat up the fuel tank of the rocket as it flies out of space. This would decrease the amount of fuel needed to reach an acceptable temperature and thus lower the amount of fuel needed on board. Currently, private companies and public funding for NASA have started to increase as microwave rocketry is gaining popularity again. Current designs employ gyrotropes to beam microwaves that track rockets and heat the fuel tanks in different rounds depending on the location, height, and temperature of the rocket. This method can greatly lower the cost of launching rockets, and that in turn will stimulate further developments in the field of space exploration.



Injectible Brain Probes

One of the least invasively explored areas of the body, and thankfully so, is the living human brain. Though CT scans and MRI scans are a large step up from the phrenology of 19th century England, they are still unable to reveal how live brains function on a neuron-sized scale. This year, Harvard chemist Charles Lieber published an article previewing his injectable brain probes. Connected to a fine conductive grid of silk mesh, electrodes and sensors embedded in the brain are able to monitor living neurons. The probes have already been tested on mice and will eventually reach human test subjects. During injection, the mesh is rolled up and injected into a brain with a needle 100 microns in diameter, or about the width of two human hairs. Once inside the brain, the probe unravels to 20 times the original size, with 95% empty space. Securely in the brain, the sensors on the probe are able to begin monitoring the brain on a neuron-sized scale. Once approved for human use, these probes could provide a minimally intrusive way for brain researchers to gather previously inaccessible information about the brain and advance research in areas such as Parkinson’s disease.



GMO Kill Switches

3_crispr Eat from a non-GMO farm! GMOs will lead to a superbug epidemic! GMOs will give you Alzheimer’s– wait no cancer– wait no autism– wait no… It’s obvious that the controversy over GMOs has been expanding exponentially in the past year, but with the poorest people on the Earth needing to farm hardy and fast growing GMOs to support themselves, and the unquenchable population threatening a food shortage, non-GMO is not a path that we as an entire population can take, even if we wanted too. But for those of you who are more skeptical of the abilities of GMOs, Christopher Voigt may have developed something to prevent a genetic crisis. The basic concept of his innovation, DNAi, is to borrow a bacteria’s CRISPR defense tactic to create a kill-switch for genetically modified organisms. CRISPR is a self defense mechanism found in bacteria that cuts up and destroys invading DNA from viruses. Using this concept, Voigt developed DNAi, which programs plasmids, or little bundles of foreign DNA, to employ a CRISPR-like technique that cuts up the bacteria’s own DNA, inherently killing it when exposed to a specific sugar. Developed with and tested on E. Coli bacteria, Voigt’s DNAi has shown promise of providing more controllable GMOs.


Image Credits: http://www.foliomag.com/2014/scientific-american-offering-full-archival-access/