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 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.
“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."
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.
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."
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.
"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."
“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.”
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.
Give your mind a hand
Daily pot smoking may hasten psychosis onset
DNA is not destiny
Can neuroscience read your mind?