• Question: What do you think will be the next big breakthrough in science?

    Asked by Jaden456 to Tristan, Sophie, Ravinder, Matt, Barbara on 17 Mar 2015.
    • Photo: Matthew Moore

      Matthew Moore answered on 17 Mar 2015:

      I don’t know what the next big breakthrough will be, hopefully it will be new antibiotics because bacteria are fast becoming resistant to the existing ones!

      I think the next major breakthrough that will happen in medicine is the prediction of protein structure. Looking at the DNA sequence (which is currently quite easy to do) we can predict what the protein sequence will be (sequence of amino acids). However we can’t always predict how a protein will fold in the cell.

      Proteins carry out much of the function of the cell and in particular, many of the functions are conducted by proteins in the cell membrane, which are particularly difficult to predict! Being able to predict their structure means being able to predict their function, the effect of mutations in the DNA sequence on function could be known for example.

      Another use of this would be to sequence a bacteria’s DNA and then predict which proteins would be good vaccine targets by being able to predict their structure and design vaccines to combat them.

    • Photo: Sophie Robinson

      Sophie Robinson answered on 17 Mar 2015:

      I think there could be many things but one big one I have come across is using microbes to supply fuel to help solve our clean fuel crisis.

      Imagine a world where high-efficiency, low-cost alternative fuels were as easy to obtain as the oxygen in the air around us. cent years have seen great strides in the area of alternative fuels (like ethanol from corn and sugar cane). Unfortunately, these methods have proven inefficient and given rise to a lot of criticism like cutting into the food and land supply.

      Recently, scientists have been able to come up with electrofuels that are designed to harness solar energy without cutting into the food, water, or land supplies as most of the existing alternative fuels do.In addition to its low energy need, tiny microbes can efficiently and effectively synthesize these electrofuels in a lab. These electrofuel microbes have been isolated and found living in non-photosynthetic bacteria. Using the electrons in the soil as food, the microbes eat up the energy to produce butanol when exposed to electricity and carbon dioxide.

      Using this knowledge, scientists extract the genes to complete this photosynthesis substitute and inject them into lab-grown bacteria allowing them to produce butanol in large amounts. Butanol is now being seen as the better alternative to both ethanol and gasoline for a variety of reasons. As a much larger molecule, butanol has a larger energy-carrying capacity than ethanol and doesn’t absorb water, so it can be placed directly in the gas tanks of any car and transported through the existing gasoline pipelines. These butanol microbes are very promising for the future of alternative fuels.

    • Photo: Barbara Shih

      Barbara Shih answered on 17 Mar 2015:

      I’m not sure what the next big breakthrough would be, but I would probably put my bet on highly advanced AI (artificial intelligence). I think it would be the next big breakthrough largely because there is a lot of incentives for its development, from commercial companies, combating cyber war to drug design.

      The current difficulties with “modeling data” is that often we’re limited to what we can understand/patterns we can imagine. With machine learning and AI, it is possible arrive at the best solution without the need for human interpretation. Currently AI are only able to perform very specific tasks, but I think this would change. They’re already able to make AIs that can learn to play “games” (not programmed to play a specific game) and recognise cats without telling them what cats look like. This would be unimaginable 15 years ago!

      Complex processes, such as prediction of protein folding from DNA sequence, might just be too difficult for humans to ever to manually find solutions for. Of course there are also the debate whether if highly intelligent AI would be a danger to human race. Several famous people, including Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, have expressed concerns over the potential from AI.