September 30, 2016

Innovations from improved corn to a sonic tractor beam

By Chelsea Follett
An ambitious plan to fight disease

In a move which echoes the recent trend of tech companies setting their sights on health problems, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged to spend $3 billion over the next decade towards the goal of curing, managing, or preventing all diseases by the end of the century. The donation will focus on the prevention and cure of diseases rather than solely on the treatment of diseases after they happen - a contrast to most medical spending. The couple has already committed $600 million of the donation to create a new research center, called the Biohub, which will begin by working on two projects: the Cell Atlas, a map describing different types of the body’s most vital cells, and the Infectious Disease Initiative, a project which will focus on solving such diseases as HIV and Zika. While their plan is undoubtedly ambitious, Zuckerberg and Chan hope their donation will allow scientists and engineers to come together to build the tools that will speed up innovation in advanced research and effectively solve all disease. 

New economy brings safer, more fulfilling jobs

Many have predicted that humans will work fewer hours in the future. We do in fact work fewer hours on average, but most people still have full time jobs. The quality of jobs actually has changed as well – it has gotten much more pleasant in recent decades. The average job has become much safer, with workplace fatalities falling steadily in the U.S since the early 20th century and globally since the early 1990s. People are also a lot less likely to move for work, indicating that many people no longer have to relocate for better job opportunities. Not only will rising productivity possibly lead to even fewer working hours in the future, but those working hours may continue to become much less tedious as well.

Sonic Tractor Beam Developed in Germany for under $10  

A team of engineers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, have
designed and built a device capable of using sound waves to project images and manipulate an object’s movement. A similar device was created in October 2015 by Spanish researchers, but was far more expensive and complex, necessitating further experimentation. By introducing a simpler and more cost-effective design, the German research team was able to assemble a device which cost around $10, and can direct and organize objects on a 2D surface. Moving forward, such a device could make ultrasound-based medicine far more personalized and efficient.

Genetically engineered corn boosts African crop yields

Corn production sustains much of Africa. However, insects called stem borers destroy much of the corn crop, particularly in Kenya. Pesticides have proven effective in the past, but for many small farmers they are costly to implement. Monsanto has tested a new variety of corn that addresses both the cost and the pests.  The new corn variety allows crops to better withstand stem borers, thus reducing loss of production.  While the insects will eventually develop resistance to the new strand of corn, it is likely to work long enough for new alternatives to be developed.