As we close out 2022 and look toward a new year, the CAS science team reflects on some of the most impactful scientific breakthroughs of 2022, and what they might mean for 2023 and beyond. To stay ahead of emerging trends, new discoveries, and unique perspectives in the new year, we invite you to subscribe to CAS Insights.
A new era of space exploration
Need to be reminded of how incredibly vast our universe is? The first ever photos from the James Webb Space Telescope are awe-inspiring. While this is the most technically advanced and powerful telescope ever created, the learnings about our universe will lead to future missions and exploration for generations ahead. Recently, the newest mission to the moon was launched as NASA’s Artemis Program which will pave the way for a future mission to Mars. This new era of space exploration will drive technological advancements in fields beyond astronautics and stimulate progress in real-world applications like materials, food science, agriculture, and even cosmetics.
A milestone in AI predictions
For decades, the scientific community has chased a greater understanding of relationships between protein functions and 3D structures. In July 2022, Deep Mind revealed that the folded 3D structure of a protein molecule can be predicted from its linear amino-acid sequence using AlphaFold2, RoseTTAFold, and trRosettaX-Single algorithms. The algorithms’ predictions reduced the number of human proteins with unknown structural data from 4,800 to just 29. While there will always be challenges with AI, the ability to predict protein structures has implications across all life sciences. Key challenges in the future include modeling proteins with intrinsic disordered properties and those that change structures by post-translational modifications or to environmental conditions. Beyond protein modeling, AI advancements continue to reshape workflows and expand discovery capabilities across many industries and disciplines.
Developing trends in synthetic biology
Synthetic biology has the potential to redefine synthetic pathways by using engineered biological systems (i.e., microorganisms, for which a large part of the genome or the entire genome has been designed or engineered) to manufacture a range of biomolecules and materials, such as therapeutics, flavors, fabrics, food, and fuels. For example, insulin could be produced without pig pancreas, leather without cows, and spider silk without spiders. The potential in life sciences alone is unbelievable, but when applied to manufacturing industries, synthetic biology could minimize future supply chain challenges, increase efficiency, and create new opportunities for biopolymers or alternative materials with more sustainable approaches. Today, teams use AI-based metabolic modeling, CRISPR tools, and synthetic genetic circuits to control metabolism, manipulate gene expression, and build pathways for bioproduction. As this discipline begins to cross over into multiple industries, the latest developments and emerging trends for metabolic control and engineering challenges are showcased in a 2022 Journal of Biotechnology article.
Single-cell metabolomics set to soar
While much progress has been made in genetic sequencing and mapping, genomics only tells us what a cell is capable of. To have a better understanding of cellular functions, proteomic and metabolomic approaches offer different angles for revealing molecular profiles and cellular pathways. Single-cell metabolomics gives a snapshot of the cellular metabolism within a biological system. The challenge is that metabolomes change rapidly, and sample preparation is critical to understand cell function. Collectively, a series of recent advancements in single-cell metabolomics (from open-sourced techniques, advanced AI algorithms, sample preparations, and new forms of mass spectrometry) demonstrates the ability to run detailed mass spectral analyses. This allows researchers to determine the metabolite population on a cell-by-cell basis, which would unlock enormous potential for diagnostics. In the future, this could lead to the ability to detect even a single cancerous cell in an organism. Combined with new biomarker detection methods, wearable medical devices and AI- assisted data analysis, this array of technologies will improve diagnosis and lives.
New catalysts enable greener fertilizer production
Every year, billions of people depend on fertilizers for the ongoing production of food, and reducing the carbon footprint and expenses in fertilizer production would reshape the impact agriculture has on emissions. The Haber-Bosch process for fertilizer production converts nitrogen and hydrogen to ammonia. To reduce energy requirements, researchers from Tokyo Tech have developed a noble-metal-free nitride catalyst containing a catalytically active transition metal (Ni) on a lanthanum nitride support that is stable in the presence of moisture. Since the catalyst doesn't contain ruthenium, it presents an inexpensive option for reducing the carbon footprint of ammonia production. The La-Al-N support, along with the active metals, such as nickel and cobalt (Ni, Co), produced NH3 at rates similar to conventional metal nitride catalysts. Learn more about sustainable fertilizer production in our latest article.
Advancements in RNA medicine
While the application of mRNA in COVID-19 vaccines garnered lots of attention, the real revolution of RNA technology is just beginning. Recently, a new multivalent nucleoside-modified mRNA flu vaccine was developed. This vaccine has the potential to build immune protection against any of the 20 known subtypes of influenza virus and protect against future outbreaks. Many rare genetic diseases are the next target for mRNA therapies, as they are often missing a vital protein and could be cured by replacing a healthy protein through mRNA therapy. In addition to mRNA therapies, the clinical pipeline has many RNA therapeutic candidates for multiple forms of cancers, and blood and lung diseases. RNA is highly targeted, versatile, and easily customized, which makes it applicable to a wide range of diseases. Learn more about the crowded clinical pipeline and the emerging trends in RNA technologies in our latest CAS Insight Report.
Rapid skeletal transformation
Within synthetic chemistry, the challenge of safely exchanging a single atom in a molecular framework or inserting and deleting single atoms from a molecular skeleton has been formidable. While many methods have been developed to functionalize molecules with peripheral substituents (such as C-H activation), one of the first methods to perform single-atom modifications on the skeletons of organic compounds was developed by Mark Levin’s group at the University of Chicago. This enables selective cleaving of the N–N bond of pyrazole and indazole cores to afford pyrimidines and quinazolines. Further development of skeletal editing methods would enable rapid diversification of commercially available molecules, which could lead to much faster discoveries of functional molecules and ideal drug candidates.
Advancing limb regeneration
Limb loss is projected to affect over 3.6 million individuals per year by 2050. For the longest time, scientists believed the single biggest key to limb regeneration is the presence of nerves. However, work done by Dr. Muneoka and his team demonstrated the importance of mechanical load to digit regeneration in mammals and that the absence of a nerve does not inhibit regeneration. The advancement of limb regeneration was also achieved by researchers at Tufts University who have used acute multidrug delivery, via a wearable bioreactor, to successfully enable long-term limb regeneration in frogs. This early success could potentially lead to larger, more complex tissue re-engineering advances for humans, eventually benefiting military veterans, diabetics, and others impacted by amputation and trauma.
Nuclear fusion generates more net energy with ignition
Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the sun and stars. For decades, the idea of replicating nuclear fusion on earth as a source of energy, in theory, could fulfill all the planet's future energy needs. The goal is to force light atoms to collide so forcefully that they fuse and release more energy than consumed. However, overcoming the electrical repulsion between the positive nuclei requires high temperatures and pressures. Once overcome, fusion releases large amounts of energy, which should also drive the fusion of nearby nuclei. Previous attempts to initiate fusion used strong magnetic fields and powerful lasers but had been unable to generate more energy than they consumed.
Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s ignition facility reported that the team was able to initiate nuclear fusion, which created 3.15 megajoules of energy from the 2.05 megajoule laser used. While this is a monumental breakthrough, the reality of a functioning nuclear fusion plant powering our grid may still be decades in the making. There are significant implementation hurdles (scalability, plant safety, energy required to generate the laser, wasted by-products, etc.) that must be addressed before this comes to fruition. However, the breakthrough of igniting nuclear fusion is a major milestone that will pave the way for future progress to be built upon this achievement.