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SciTech #ScienceSunday Digest - Week 52 of 2012
Reviewing the top advances throughout 2012. Picking just 10 from well over 520 science and technology stories over the year is nearly impossible. So instead I concentrated on what I consider to be the major science and technology themes being developed throughout the year and selected a major advance for each. Let me know if you think I unfairly omitted any.

1. DNA Origami: Creating Artificial Ion Channels.
In week 46 we saw the ongoing development of DNA origami continuing to impress with a demonstration of rationally-designed nanostructures to function as synthetic lipid membrane ion channels http://nextbigfuture.com/2012/11/artificial-ion-channels-have-been-made.html that naturally self-assemble and embed themselves into lipid membranes. I really like this idea of functionalising these DNA structures with other molecules that enable better interfaces with natural structures. I’m looking forward to seeing if they try to build on this work to (i) make a family of channels that are selective for different ions, (ii) replicate the function of other cellular structures with DNA origami, (iii) explore the addition of other molecules to impart additional novel functions. DNA Origami was a hot topic this year with our capabilities for bottom-up self assembly of complex atomically precise structures continuing to improve via numerous advances. Top-down approaches to creating digital matter included folding-chain reconfigurable robotics from then Gershenfeld laboratory http://www.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/reconfigurable-robots-turn-into-anything-1130.html and programmable sand http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/smart-robotic-sand-0402.html

2. Graphene: Molecular Graphene and Designer Electrons.
In week 11 the tremendous development of molecular graphene (not to be confused with carbon-based graphene) was announced http://mota.stanford.edu/molecular_graphene.php and constitutes the creation of "designer electrons" (completely tunable) that (i) can behave as if they have no mass and appear to travel at the speed of light,(ii) can behave "as if" they are under the influence of the most powerful magnetic field ever observed, (iii) create "hole" and "electron" p-n-p gate regions, observation of the quantum hall effect, etc. Lots of promise for new materials development, electronics, energy generation, and more esoteric possibilities such as wormholes. Of course, barely a week went by this year without some laboratory or another announcing a major advance in carbon-based graphene research in a plethora of energy, materials, and computation applications. 

3. Brain Mapping: BlueBrain Project Has a Major Breakthrough in Brain Mapping and Modelling.
In week 38 Henry Markram’s BlueBrain project announced a major breakthrough in being able to predict the locations of synapses in the neocortex, which will make it much easier to perform brain mapping and build accurate models of the brain and neoocortex http://actu.epfl.ch/news/blue-brain-project-accurately-predicts-connections/. These key principles determine synapse-scale connectivity, which follows the independent growth of neurons and the formation of synapses at points where they randomly bump into each other. Positioning synapses in this way is very robust and helps explain the brain’s resilience to damage. This year saw a surge in brain mapping (first draft of mouse brain and bee brain), brain modelling, and the field of connectomics, mainly driven by advances in automation and working with Big Data. 

4. Brain-Computer Interfaces: It’s Getting Easier for Minds to Talk to Machines.
In week 20 non-invasive brain interface systems were allowing paraplegics to routinely move around with thought-controlled robotic legs http://www.economist.com/node/21555544; advances like this make me wonder how much longer is it until we see someone walking around with fully-articulated electrically-powered prosthetic legs. Meanwhile another (invasive) system is allowing quadraplegics to accurately move robotic arms around their environment http://www.technologyreview.com/biomedicine/40418/?ref=rss, and while this system must actually be plugged into an external box (a la The Matrix) they are currently developing a wireless system for version 2. It almost seemed to become routine, reading about advances like this, culminating in the recent demonstration by a quadriplegic woman in grabbing a chocolate bar with a robotic arm controlled by her brain and feeding herself with it. Implanted retina chips, improved prosthetics for deep brain stimulation, and controlling a range of crawling and flying robots by thinking give an idea of the many other advances in this space. 

5. Optogenetics: New 3D Fiber-Optic Chip for Precise Localisation of Light Signals in the Brain.
During week 47 neuroscientists announced a new optogenetics tool comprising of a 3D array of 1,000 light emitters within one cubic centimeter http://www.osa.org/about_osa/newsroom/newsreleases/2012/a_3-d_light_switch_for_the_brain/, which is able to deliver precise points of light to a 3D section of living brain tissue. In fact the new 3-D array is precise enough to activate a single kind of neuron, at a precise location, with a single beam of light. Depending on what light-sensitive protein is transfected into the neuron this array can controllably emit the different light required to turn that neuron on or off. Optogenetics is such a hot space at the moment and time will tell if we see such things as (i) a slightly larger, higher-density array that is implanted and used to exert fine control over rodents or (ii) some point in the future when neuronal gene-therapy plus optical implants like this are used to treat human diseases. In related news we had optogenetics being used to determine motivation pathways in the brain http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/november/challenge.html. Optogenetics is another of those transformational / disruptive technologies that is rapidly evolving in the lab and once mature will make significant changes to our lives. Other work this year involved curing blindness, transitioning the work to non-human primates, proposals to treat Parkinsons disease, utility in mapping brain regions, and remote-controlling worms. 

6. Metamaterials: Making Electrons Effectively Massless.
Week 51 saw a new metamaterial design proposing to go to the next level, to the quantum scale, to construct architectures that should enable electrons to have zero effective mass http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/news/penn-metamaterials-expert-shows-way-reduce-electrons-effective-mass-nearly-zero. This builds on work with bulk materials made of layers of alternative negative and positive permittivity, to propose bulk materials made of layers that induce positive and negative effective electron mass - resulting in an effective mass of zero for electrons travelling in a certain direction. Lets see this reduced to practice over the next year or so, and then seriously contemplate how to make (resistanceless?) faster computer chips and superconductors. We saw many advances from metamaterials this year; it is one of those seemingly magic technologies that promises invisibility to various optical wavelengths, pseudo-masslessness of fundamental particles, absolute control of sound waves, creating matter, and even engineering forces in non-intuitive ways as we saw with a material that expands when squeezed and contracts when stretched. 

7. Autonomous Drones: Amazing Quadcopters, Hexacopters, and Planes.
In week 50 we had further demonstrations of the growing capabilities of military drones or automated unmanned aerial vehicles. First up was the first successful automated blackhawk helicopter flight, which completed its flight and navigation with no prior knowledge of the terrain http://singularityhub.com/2012/12/11/automated-blackhawk-helicopter-completes-first-flight-test/, secondly we had a demonstration of a DARPA project to add functional arms and grippers to drones and UAVs that can interact with stable objects in the environment http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/military-robots/good-ideas-darpa-program-adds-giant-robot-arm-to-uav?, and finally we had the demonstration of a cheap kit-built hobby quad hexacopter fitted with the usual HD cameras to allow remote piloting via stereo video goggles that also incorporated an automatic paintball gun and paintball magazine (could easily be a real gun) and which was flown over a field to accurately and successfully shoot a number of human-shaped cardboard cutouts http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/diy/paintball-gun-on-quadrotor-but-dont-panic? The video demonstration for the hexacopter is also pretty good (if a little dramatic) http://youtu.be/Jplh7uatr-E?t=2m18s. Autonomous drones were huge in 2012 and we were treated to micro-drones, mapping drones, military drones, surveillance drones, remote control drones, telepresence drones, drones going from wifi to cellular networks, mind-controlled drones, and many other variations in between. 

8. Microfluidic Chips: Mimicking Human Physiology with Networked Microfluidic Chips.
Week 30 saw a group successfully creating human lung-on-a-chip and human gut-on-a-chip microfluidic systems and then be tasked, and funded, by DARPA  to build 10 different human organs-on-chips and link them together to mimic whole body physiology with the aid of automated instrumentation http://wyss.harvard.edu/viewpressrelease/91/. These chips recreate the microarchitecture and functions of living organs and together, by providing a whole “human-on-a-chip”, will enable massive gains to be realised in drug screening and development. In week 24 we also had the impressive demonstration from the Quake group of a system that can perform 10,000 simultaneous measurements / reactions http://singularityhub.com/2012/06/10/inventor-of-biochip-that-makes-10000-simultaneous-measurements-wins-oscar-for-inventors-%E2%80%93-and-500000/. The field of microfluidics took many additional steps forward this year with acoustic cell sorting, high-throughout animal studies with zebrafish, automated mass-production systems, molecule detector / sensors at dog-level sensitivity, and many other advances. Micro- and even milli-fluidic systems are set to deliver similar improvements over 2013 and beyond. 

9. 3D Printing: Reactionware and 3D Printing: Programmable Chemical Synthesis from Base-stocks.
In week 30 a visionary group of chemists led by Lee Cronin created a rudimentary prototype programmable chemical synthesis device via 3D printing http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jul/21/chemputer-that-prints-out-drugs. This “chemputer” technology enables the 3D printer to print the actual reaction chambers that are required for subsequent synthesis of the desired chemical, and the printer then injects the “chemical inks” of base-chemicals to create the desired synthesis steps to produce the more complex end product. Their current system is very early stage. But the potential for future developments of systems like this immense. At home capabilities would include synthesising your own drugs, household chemicals, and different 3D printer inks, for example, simply by downloading a configuration file from the Web and providing you had the same basic feedstock molecules to start the process with. These designs could be tinkered with to create better molecules and catalysts. 2012 was very much the year of 3D Printing and was characterised by many different advances, from the latest industrial printer that can handle 120 different materials, to printing the first firearm, printing cartilage and bioprinting organs and therapeutic tissues with live cells, experimental printing resolution of 65nm, printing electronics and photovoltaics and lasers and conductive polymers, printing blood vessel scaffolds and vasculature. And all of this was just in the research space - in the consumer space we all saw 3D printing products and services begin to blossom. 

10. Synthetic Biology: Building A Language to Reprogram Cells - The Imminent Power of Synthetic Biology.
This is a great, short, and accessible little article that helps one get to grips with the promise and rising power of Synthetic Biology to treat and exploit cells as the little computational machines that they are http://lifesciences.ieee.org/publications/newsletter/may-2012/107-synthetic-biology-building-a-language-to-program-cells. Discussion includes gene circuits, molecular logic elements, and memory, all of which have been achieved with genetic engineering. The next stage will be to build on this and connect many of these elements together into specifically-designed programs to perform complex tasks for industrial applications by using synthetic bacterial biosensors to drive cellular processing in a pre-programmed way. 2012 was another big year for synthetic biology, driven by techniques to predictably design folded protein structures from scratch, engineering increasingly complex biological circuits, increasing the number of genetic components in the synbio toolkit, the discovery of a novel RNA-protein binding code, the launch of the ENCODE genomic analysis report, and the exploitation of bacterial innate immunity mechanisms to cut DNA sequences at any arbitrary point - among numerous others. 

Many thanks to the tireless +ScienceSunday curators: +Robby Bowles, +Rajini Rao, +Allison Sekuler, +Chad Haney, and +Buddhini Samarasinghe for their support over the past year. I doubt I would have met all 52 deadlines without you!
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