The search for alien life with next-generation telescopes, a self-healing heart capable of restarting itself, and safer roads with smarter cars are expected to feature as the some of the key scientific breakthroughs in the coming year.
Horizon asked a selection of scientists featured in the magazine in the past year which scientific breakthrough would make the biggest difference to their field in 2018.
The detection of an atmosphere on an exoplanet
Dr Michaël Gillon, who led the team which discovered the TRAPPIST-1 system of seven Earth-size planets orbiting a dwarf star 40 light years away, says the biggest breakthrough would be detecting a hint of atmosphere around a rocky exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone of a nearby star. ‘This would represent a huge step forward for the search for traces of life beyond our solar system,’ he said. ‘Indeed, an atmosphere is an absolute prerequisite, not only for the existence of habitable conditions on the surface of a temperate rocky planet, but also for the remote detection of chemical traces of life with upcoming giant telescopes.’
Towards self-regulating organs with new biological functions
Dr Daniël Pijnappels from Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands predicts that organs will be genetically modified to gain new biological functions for therapeutic purposes. He said: ‘Breakthrough technologies like CRISPR-Cas, but also optogenetics ─ the use of light-gated proteins to control biological function ─ will allow … us, for example, to enable the heart to acquire properties currently only found in electronic devices, like generation of electrical current for termination of rhythm disturbances (i.e. defibrillation). (Not) chemistry or electronics, but biology will bring the most significant advances in a way that will truly change our view of nature, disease and remedy.’
A 10-minute test to reveal the cause of an infection
Professor Per Venge from Uppsala University in Sweden has developed a blood test to reveal whether an infection is caused by a virus or bacteria, which will become available to healthcare providers in the next year. It works by identifying a protein called HNL that is only present in the case of bacterial infections. ‘The early and accurate discrimination between bacterial or viral causes of acute infections is key to the better use of antibiotics and will help slow down the fast-growing resistance to commonly used antibiotics,’ he said. ‘(The test) shall be a major step forward to accomplish the goal of accurately diagnosing patients with symptoms of acute infection within 10 minutes at the emergency room or at the doctor´s office.’
Detecting the merger of very light black holes
Dr Michele Punturo, the former detector coordinator of the VIRGO gravitational wave observatory in Italy, says that detecting the merger of very light black holes could reveal more about the origin of dark matter. ‘In 2018 I would like to see, in the upgraded gravitational wave detectors VIRGO and LIGO, the signals of the coalescence of very light black holes, having mass equal (to) or smaller than the solar mass. These black holes cannot be generated by stellar collapses and … they will be a clear indication of a model describing the dark matter as composed by primordial black holes generated in the early universe.’
Cellular-level insights into dementia
Dr Shreyasi Chatterjee from the University of Southampton, UK, says that studies published in 2017 identifying factors that predispose people to Alzheimer’s disease could lead to insights at a cellular level in 2018. ‘Early detection is … the key to halt the progression of dementia,’ she said. ‘(The 2017) discoveries will help in identifying the cellular factors that increase the risk of dementia due to metabolic dysfunctions, thus facilitating early detection and treatment. I believe this will make the biggest difference in my field in 2018.’
Better understanding of hurricane activity
In 2018 Louis-Philippe Caron from the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, Spain, hopes to identify the main driver of the sea surface temperature fluctuations to help understand and predict hurricane activity. ‘Compared to the previous and subsequent decades, the 1970s to mid-1990s were very quiet in terms of Atlantic hurricane activity,’ he said. ‘This decrease in activity has been associated with an oscillation in sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic Ocean. Identifying the main driver of this oscillation would not only go a long way in furthering our understanding hurricane variability, but also impact our ability to predict long-term changes as well as determine the level of activity that is to be expected for the future.’
Real-time analysis of plant nutrient levels
Professor Nicolas Plumeré of the Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany expects new breakthroughs in sensors and big data to help farmers achieve a more sustainable food production with lower impact on the environment. ‘In-soil or in-plant sensors will deliver reliable data for fertilisation recommendation. Such technology will offer the possibility to accurately determine, for instance, the nitrogen or phosphate contents within plants in real time. Detailed fertiliser input recommendation will become accessible from central processing and computing of the field or plant data with complementary information, such as weather predictions, satellite images from the ESA Copernicus project or field history.’
Devleoping particle accelerators more powerful than CERN
Professor Michael Benedikt from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland is overseeing the development of the next generation of particle accelerator, the massive Future Circular Collider (FCC). He says two areas in which we could see breakthroughs in 2018 are the development of high-field magnets and of new accelerating structures, both thanks to advances in superconductivity. ‘The development of these key technologies will … enable construction of a more powerful accelerator. The year 2018 marks a milestone in the life of the FCC collaboration as we will … present in detail the technological advancements and breakthroughs that have been achieved as part of the study. This report will shape future discussions about a scientific tool that could shape modern physics for the rest of the 21st century.’
Gene-editing to improve crop immunity
For Professor Sophien Kamoun at Sainsbury Laboratory in the UK, a breakthrough would be to adapt plant immune systems to defend them against a wider range of diseases. ‘One approach would be to design improved immune receptors that can then be edited into crop genomes. This approach requires a better biochemical and biophysical understanding of how plant receptors detect pathogens and activate immunity. It also necessitates a better knowledge of pathogen diversity and (their ability to evolve). Ultimately, we require a framework to rapidly generate new disease resistance traits and introduce them into crop genomes. Only then we can keep up with rapidly evolving pathogens.’
Extracting DNA from museum insect collections
Professor Alexey Solodovnikov from the Natural History Museum of Denmark says that if the DNA of ancient insects could be sequenced, it would help fill gaps in the insect tree of life. ‘Advances in genomics get us closer to the robust tree of life of all insects, a key reference system to navigate through their mega-diversity,’ he said. ‘Modern technology gives promises for sequencing … meaningful DNA markers from the old museum specimens. If this happens in 2018 or soon, instantly bringing millions of insect specimens from all world entomological collections to the tree of life, I would call this the most impactful breakthrough.’
Europe-wide infrastructure for figthing infectious diseases
Professor Herman Goossens at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, says we can tackle antibiotic resistance (AMR) and influenza by building a European clinical trial research infrastructure to conduct more efficient and patient-centred trials using precision medicine. ‘We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gear up the considerable public and private resources already invested in the EU. In 2018, we should start designing and subsequently building (a) boldly ambitious infrastructure on tackling AMR as well as other infectious disease threats. We will never be in such a privileged and pivotal decision point in our lifetimes ever again.’
Big data dashboards for better agriculture
Dr Panagiotis Zervas at Agroknow in Greece says that in 2018 he would like to see food production data from the Internet of Things translated into stories through dashboards or other visualisation methods. ‘High volumes of … data … can be produced by a number of different types of connected devices such as smart web of sensors, cameras, robots, drones or even microchips in animals. However, it is very important that all these data can be digested and translated into meaningful knowledge. This innovation will (make it easier for) farmers, companies or policy and decision makers to communicate complex ideas and relationships more effectively.’
Fully autonomous social robots
Dr Luis Santos at the University of Coimbra in Portugal said improvements in how robots interact with humans would be a step forward in social robotics. ‘The last three to four years have seen spectacular progress in the application of robotics to address societal challenges beyond the classical industrial scope, with a strong focus on the ageing challenge. Deploying a fully autonomous mobile robot in a social environment is a complex cross-domain challenge. I personally see the maturation of human-robot physical interaction as a significant milestone for 2018, as it would set robots apart from any other known digital solution.’
Integrated traffic management for better traffic conditions
Professor Markos Papageorgiou from the Technical University of Crete says that combining different traffic control measures in 2018 will see improved traffic flow on motorways. ‘Today’s motorway traffic control practice applies (control) measures independently of each other, and there is no evidence that (they) have any positive contribution to congestion mitigation. We expect that the field implementation of novel control strategies, which employ ramp metering and VSL (variable speed limits) in a combined and coherent, integrated way … will mark a breakthrough in motorway traffic flow efficiency, leading to significantly improved travel times, fuel consumption, environmental pollution and traffic safety.’
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