The application of molecular motors in medicine and materials science, the design of social robots for educational and health purposes, and a push towards making legumes more attractive for farmers to grow are some of the predictions made by researchers in Horizon’s poll of major developments this year.
Horizon asked a selection of researchers who were featured in the magazine last year for their predictions of which scientific breakthroughs they expect to see in 2016.
The first implementation of molecular motors
Professor Nicolas Giuseppone from the University of Strasbourg, France, developed the world’s first shrinking gel, which is powered by molecular motors. He expects to see the first implementation of these microscopic nanomachines in the near future. ‘Concrete applications of nanomachines will come, for example, with the design of artificial molecular muscles and other transduction materials to convert or store energy from controlled motions - materials science. (They will also come from) artificial molecular pumps and carriers to transport and deliver drugs - medicine - (and) artificial molecular machineries to precisely synthesise complex molecules from a molecular code - advanced catalysis,’ he said.
A greater focus on sex and gender in medicine
Prof. Vera Regitz-Zagrosek from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in Germany, who coordinates the European Gender Medicine Network, believes that 2016 will see sex and gender being taken into consideration in health research, instead of young and old women and men all being treated equally. ‘This will reduce costs for unnecessary diagnostic procedures – cardiac catheterisations in younger, low-risk women, for example – and it will help to avoid over- or under-dosing of drugs and treating the complications,’ she said. ‘Considering sex and gender will lead to research innovations, to more efficient database mining and better mechanistic research by including effects of sex and sex hormones.’
More competitive legumes
Dr Richard Thompson, from INRA in France, says he expects to see progress on breeding out traits that currently make legumes uncompetitive, such as disease resistance, freezing tolerance, and yield/yield stability. Growing more legumes is beneficial because their nitrogen-fixing properties mean that use of mineral nitrogen fertilisers can be reduced. ‘All (the uncompetitive traits) are polygenic traits and difficult to select for in conventional breeding programmes,’ he said. ‘Breakthroughs can be expected in 2016 from two advances: one, exploiting the pea genome sequence due out in 2016 to multiply the marker density available for selection, and two, applying genomic selection methods to permit efficient selection of polygenic traits.'
Understanding the effectiveness of Ebola vaccinations
Prof. John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in the UK, believes that the completion, expected in June 2016, of the PREVAIL trial will be significant, as it is comparing the effectiveness of two types of Ebola vaccines. ‘The head-to-head trial - planned by NIH (the US National Institutes of Health) - will be an important step,’ he said.
Using the power of graphene to carry electron spin
Prof. Stephan Roche, at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, Spain, believes a game changer would be if a device could be made to harness the ability of graphene to enable electrons to transmit the direction of their spin to one another, and be used to control that spin. ‘It could impact on the design of new non-volatile memories, or microwave emitters and detectors for high-tech applications,’ he said.
A step forward for social robotics
Prof. Angelo Cangelosi, from the University of Plymouth, UK, expects there to be an increasing interest and investment in robotics research and innovation in 2016. ‘This will lead to significant progress in the design and testing of social robots for education and social and health care,’ he said. ‘In mid-2016 we will start to train the next generation of forward-thinking, highly interdisciplinary and inter-sectorial researchers for the design of future personal robotics applications in education, assistive robots and social companions for the elderly.’
A change in emphasis for innovation
Professor Alan Irwin from Copenhagen Business School in Denmark would like to see a much greater focus on the form and direction of innovation. ‘Right now, companies, governments and scientific bodies are all calling for greater levels of innovation and closer industry-academic collaborations,’ he said. ‘But I would like to see an equal determination to consider the kinds of innovation we need and the sorts of society we want to make. Whether we call it sustainable innovation or responsible innovation, 2016 should be the year we get much more specific about where we want innovation to take us.’
Computers understanding big data
Luca De Santis, from Net7, Italy, believes there will be a rise in the use of semantic web services, which package information in a format understandable by computers. He also thinks computers' ability to understand the huge volumes of data from social networks will improve. ‘Semantic web has also a very rich theoretical background: the merge of machine learning on big data and the semantic web is, and will be, a hot topic of research, whose promising results, I hope, will be ready to be exploited in commercial software applications and services in 2016.’
New infrastructure for analysing big data
Peter Wittenburg from the Research Data Alliance says that in 2016 science will need to prove that it can help us extract new knowledge from all the data and information that humans have access to. ‘In addition to inventing new methods and tools to extract this knowledge, we urgently need to come to an ecosystem of infrastructures that offers persistent access to data and tools across national and discipline boundaries,’ he said. ‘Only with help of a global and cross-disciplinary effort we will be able to identify, specify, implement and maintain common components which will be the essential building blocks of such an ecosystem.’
Tapping into the genetic diversity contained within the seeds of wild relatives and forgotten crop plants could help farmers decrease their dependency on global agribusiness and grow food better suited to local conditions.
Neuroscientist Dr Domenica Bueti often plays an altered version of the classic aria La donna è mobile when she gives talks about the importance of time perception. Her friend’s piano rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s composition uses the same notes but is played at different speeds. Rarely does anyone ever identify the tune.
Cities across Europe are trialling schemes such as roof gardens and ‘mobile forests’ to embed more nature into urban areas in an effort to protect their citizens from climate change events like heatwaves, floods and droughts.
Rivers in Europe are so congested with concrete obstructions like weirs, bridges and other man-made barriers that they no longer flow freely, which harms the wider environment. Removing these blockages could restore these vital aquatic ecosystems to their former glory.
Trees, roof-top parks and vertical gardens can make urban areas better places to live.
Free flowing rivers have almost entirely vanished across Europe.
R&I missions will mean rethinking the economy - Prof. Mazzucato.