Susannah Tringe spends a fair bit of her work time, currently for the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, in the fragrant, murky wetlands of California’s Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. Thriving microbial communities there could be the key to understanding how wetlands mitigate or exacerbate greenhouse-gas levels in our atmosphere. Tringe is cataloging the genetic fingerprints of the entire microbial ecosystem to determine how these wetlands work and if we can tailor them while restoring drained wetlands to absorb more greenhouse gas than they emit.
Capturing the motion of macromolecules will help researchers make better HIV drugs
By Mara Grunbaum
Posted 10.19.2011 at 10:14 am 1 Comment
Early every morning, before dawn if he can, Hashim Al-Hashimi goes running. Six miles, rain or shine, summer heat or bitter Michigan cold (Al-Hashimi works at the University of Michigan). His chosen route is hilly for a reason. Just at the uphill crests—when the muscle pain is sharpest and the body most wants to quit—that’s when his mind is sharpest. “Most of my thinking is at the top of a hill,” he says.
Staring into the brains of fruit flies could clarify the connection between genes and behaviors
By Mara Grunbaum
Posted 10.17.2011 at 11:02 am 3 Comments
Gaby Maimon, of Rockefeller University, can read fruit flies’ minds. As their wings buzz under his microscope, he watches the neurons fire in their poppy-seed-size brains. By doing so, he is able to discern how the firing of certain neurons corresponds to certain behaviors. His goal is to untangle precisely how genes and neuron activation trigger behavioral disorders like autism and ADHD.
Trapping and preserving biomarkers will help doctors detect cancer sooner
By Madhumita Venkataramanan
Posted 10.17.2011 at 10:15 am 7 Comments
When Alessandra Luchini was a girl growing up in Italy, she visited the Museo Galileo in Florence, where she saw the telescope that Galileo Galilei had invented four centuries before, in 1610. She was struck by its simplicity. with a just a couple of pieces of curved glass, anyone could see whole new worlds.
After 1,200 unsuccessful attempts to do something, most people would call it quits. Not Harvard University chemist Tobias Ritter. Chemistry research is 90 percent failure, he says. But success, when it comes, can be big. In Ritter's case, it could mean more-effective drugs. Ritter, a native of Germany, had been studying fluorination, the process by which fluorine atoms bind to carbon, since 2007.
In July 2010, a colleague rushed into Justin Kasper’s office at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He showed Kasper a telescope video of something they had never seen before: a comet crashing into the sun. The sight was amazing. But what grabbed Kasper’s attention was the moment before impact, when a surprising cloud puff indicated that the comet had hit unobserved material.
Rendering complex objects realistically requires a whole new kind of geometry
By Ryan Bradley
Posted 10.12.2011 at 10:06 am 7 Comments
When Eitan Grinspun’s adviser at the California Institute of Technology asked him to help develop a better way to model how cans bend when crushed, the young mathematician did not think it would be a major project. “He lured me into something that took years and years,” says Grinspun, now at Columbia University. But the journey to model a crushed Coke can ended with an entirely new field of geometry.
Differential geometry can describe how the curves and surfaces of a given object will bend and crease.
Using metal chips and light, clinicians will be able to detect viruses in even rural medical clinics
By Katie Peek
Posted 10.11.2011 at 10:56 am 7 Comments
One of the many challenges of practicing medicine in developing countries is performing quick, reliable diagnosis of infectious disease. To bring rapid virus diagnostics to underserved populations, engineer Hatice Altug and her research team at Boston University have created and tested a biosensor that detects disease-causing organisms with precisely directed light.
Watching how insects use plants shows that self-medication isn’t just for complex animals
By Sarah Fecht
Posted 10.10.2011 at 10:09 am 5 Comments
“I didn’t start working with monarchs because I liked them,” says evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode of Emory University. “I came to them because they have a really cool parasite.” That parasite, called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, normally pokes holes in the butterflies’ skin, causing them to leak bodily fluids. But de Roode noticed that monarchs that ate the tropical milkweed plant did not suffer from parasitic infections as much as monarchs eating swamp milkweed did. This led him to suggest to his colleagues that the monarchs were self-medicating.
For a decade now, the editors of Popular Science have been seeking out promising young researchers at labs across the nation, and for a decade we’ve been dazzled by the intelligence and creativity of the people we’ve discovered. This year’s honorees, like the 90 others before them, represent the best of what science can achieve. Some are looking for specific solutions to daunting social problems, such as how to manufacture more-effective drugs or cheaply diagnose diseases in developing nations.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.