10 ways your research shaped the last decade

— By Emma Duncan and Matthew Prior, Frontiers science writers

Computer chip power doubles every year — but Moore’s law is just the start. Innovation across all areas of science and technology is accelerating, fast.

Perhaps like billions of others, you’re looking at a smartphone right now. Ten years ago most of us had never held one. All the while new cures, new species, new materials and new self-understanding have been extending and brightening our future.

As Frontiers celebrates its 10th anniversary, we look back at 10 ways your research has contributed to, and built on, breakthroughs of the past decade.

1. Decoding the brain

Like many fields, brain research faces a challenge of equivalence, that is, how to compare different measures of brain activity used in different studies. In 2008, one of the earliest articles published by Frontiers presented a mathematical solution: translating brain activity data — from electrical recordings to whole-brain blood flow maps — into a single geometric scale. Representing these data as many-dimensional shapes enables structural comparisons to be made between them and with their behavioral outcomes — or even with computational brain models.

Meanwhile, biophysicists developed a new means to understand the role of specific, individual neurons in behavior. They showed that neurons can be precisely controlled using light — even in living, moving animals — after being genetically engineered to produce proteins which change shape when illuminated. In 2013, a group of these pioneers published a range of novel indicator proteins in Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, for use in such ‘optogenetics’ experiments. Shining red, blue, cyan or yellow when cells receive signals, these proteins allow researchers to simultaneously manipulate and visualize neuronal activity using light.

2. New ways to change DNA

CRISPR/Cas9 emerged in 2012 as a powerful new genome-editing tool, with applications ranging from basic research to biotechnology to treating diseases. Researchers publishing in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology describe the use of this tool to, for the first time, completely eradicate hepatitis B virus DNA from an infected cell line — demonstrating the exciting potential to cure not only genetic disorders but also chronic viral infections.

Another group of researchers provided the most comprehensive demonstration to date for the use of so-called ‘cisgenic’ techniques to add new traits to elite crop varieties — giving the classic Gala apple red flesh, for instance. Published in Frontiers in Plant Science, the results are identical to traditional plant breeding: the new gene is expressed exactly as in the sexually compatible donor plant. This skips the years required for woody plants to grow to sexual maturity and also removes perceived biosafety risks of mainstream ‘non-native’ genetically modified crops.

3. Personalized treatments

Stem cells hold enormous potential for growing new cells and organs to treat tissue damage and disease. Early studies suggested embryos were the only reliable source — but these pose a number of limitations, including ethical concerns, immunological rejection of transplanted tissue and a scarcity of donor material. However these issues may now be solved: scientists publishing in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine make the exciting conclusion that stem cells from adults function just as well. This important finding brings us a step closer to personalized treatments for genetic disorders, heart disease, kidney failure … and maybe even age-related conditions as well.

4. Ever more species

Researchers are continually finding new species, especially in the Amazon where the rate is one new plant or animal every two days (1). And now there’s an entire new ecosystem to add to the tally: the Great Amazonian Reef, located just offshore. The first proof of the reef’s existence only came in 2016 — and the first video surveys, published this year in Frontiers in Marine Science, show it is much larger and deeper than originally thought, with a high diversity of habitats. The article become one of Frontiers’ most-viewed within days of publishing, a clear indication of intense global interest in this iconic part of the world. 

5. Powerful climate change models

The growing availability of fast, powerful computers and massive datasets has led to increasingly sophisticated mathematical models that accurately simulate the behavior of natural systems — from cells and populations to earthquakes and planet formation.

Such models are invaluable for predicting climate change outcomes and informing adaptation and mitigation strategies. Two critical impacts are sea-level rise and changes to freshwater resources due to melting of glaciers. Researchers publishing in Frontiers in Earth Science improved estimates for global glacier loss and sea-level rise under different carbon emissions scenarios, by taking into account new parameters such as ice located below sea-level that currently displaces ocean water and ice loss due to frontal ablation. Their model predicts a lower contribution of glaciers to sea-level rise than previous estimates, but an alarming 25-48% loss of global glacier volume by 2100.

6. Digital lab rats

New chemical formulations drive ongoing innovation across large parts of our lives, from pharmaceuticals to agricultural products to household items. These must be tested for toxicity – usually in animal models, which have limited accuracy in risk prediction and raise ethical and translational questions. Step in advanced computing and big data again!

A 2016 Frontiers in Environmental Science article describes the first application of deep learning to computational toxicity, showing this revolutionary approach not only excels in toxicity prediction but outperforms many other computational approaches. And a 2017 Frontiers in Physiology article further paves the way for in silico drug trials, presenting powerful new software that predicts the clinical risk of drug-induced side effects on the heart with higher accuracy than animal experiments.

7. Harnessing the psychedelic state

Psychedelic drugs re-emerged this decade as a means both to understand and to heal the mind. After 40 years in the shadow of fears over recreational use, substances like LSD, DMT and mescaline are once again showing promise for the treatment of depression, PTSD and addiction — and as a tool for studying consciousness.

At the crest of this new wave, a 2014 paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found evidence of a scientific basis for the psychoanalytic unconscious state, by studying the effects of the magic mushroom psychedelic ‘psilocybin’ on brain activity. The authors invoke principles from physics to measure the “randomness” of a person’s brain activity and relate this to his sense of certainty. They propose that the awake adult human brain has evolved to suppress this randomness, promoting realism, foresight and careful reflection — whereas in dreams, psychosis or childhood, thoughts are less ordered and more flexible.

8. Innovative materials

Humans have been imitating nature since prehistory, from hunters disguised in animal pelts to Da Vinci and his bird-inspired flying machine. Today, biomimicry has become systematic in scale and minute in detail.

A recent example is a new material that can store energy like an eagle’s grip, published in Frontiers in Materials. The researchers modified an existing design — which stores energy in the same way as an eagle’s talon or a flea’s legs — to produce shape-changing structures that can be deformed repeatedly without damage and withstand extreme temperatures. Applications include energy-efficient gripping tools and re-configurable, shape-on-demand materials.

9. The omics explosion

It started with genomics, spread to proteomics… and exploded into transcriptomics, connectomics, foodomics and exposomics to name just a few. Powered by new technologies and advanced computing, these represent a groundbreaking way to study organisms and biological systems — where the focus is no longer on single molecules or aspects but rather how all parts interact and function together.

Metagenomics emerged as a powerful way to study microbial communities using DNA taken directly from environmental samples. A 2013 Frontiers in Microbiology article used the technique to look at microorganisms living in deep-sea sediments in the Gulf of Mexico before and after the Deepwater Horizon blowout. And a 2016 article in the same journal provides an important reference for the best next generation sequencing approaches for studying the gut microbiome, whose role in health and disease is increasingly recognized.

10. Fighting cancer with immunotherapy

This decade has seen immunologists at the front line in the fight against cancer, from the widespread adoption of HPV vaccination for prevention of cervical malignancy to the Nobel-winning development of ‘checkpoint inhibitors’ which unleash the body’s immune system to fight tumors.

The field was focused on CAR-T cell therapy — in which a patient’s T cells are genetically modified to recognize cancer cells via receptors called CARs — when the authors of a 2015 paper in Frontiers in Immunology predicted that ‘natural killer’ cells would move to the forefront. Evidence is now accumulating that CAR-natural killer cells could be safer, faster and cheaper than CAR-T cells, and may work in cases where T cells falter.

Our warmest thanks to all of our authors and editors, whose choice to give the world open access to the fruits of their labor is helping to build a better future for us all.

For more research that is changing the world, check out the Frontiers Spotlight Award finalists

Selected articles on the topics mentioned above:

Kriegeskorte N, Mur M and Bandettini P (2008). Representational similarity analysis – connecting the branches of systems neuroscience. Front. Syst. Neurosci. 2:4.

Akerboom J, Carreras Calderón N, Tian L, Wabnig S, Prigge M, Tolö J, Gordus A, Orger MB, Severi KE, Macklin JJ, Patel R, Pulver SR, Wardill TJ, Fischer E, Schüler C, Chen T-W, Sarkisyan KS, Marvin JS, Bargmann CI, Kim DS, Kügler S, Lagnado L, Hegemann P, Gottschalk A, Schreiter ER and Looger LL (2013) Genetically encoded calcium indicators for multi-color neural activity imaging and combination with optogeneticsFront. Mol. Neurosci. 6:2.

Li H, Sheng C, Wang S, Yang L, Liang Y, Huang Y, Liu H, Li P, Yang C, Yang X, Jia L, Xie J, Wang L, Hao R, Du X, Xu D, Zhou J, Li M, Sun Y, Tong Y, Li Q, Qiu S and Song H (2017) Removal of Integrated Hepatitis B Virus DNA Using CRISPR-Cas9Front.Cell. Infect. Microbiol. 7:91.

Krens FA, Schaart JG, van der Burgh AM, Tinnenbroek-Capel IEM, Groenwold R, Kodde LP, Broggini GAL, Gessler C and Schouten HJ (2015) Cisgenic apple trees; development, characterization, and performanceFront. Plant Sci. 6:286.

Strässler ET, Aalto-Setälä K, Kiamehr M, Landmesser U and Kränkel N (2018) Age Is Relative — Impact of Donor Age on Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell-Derived Cell FunctionalityFront. Cardiovasc. Med. 5:4.

Francini-Filho RB, Asp NE, Siegle E, Hocevar J, Lowyck K, D’Avila N, Vasconcelos AA, Baitelo R, Rezende CE, Omachi CY, Thompson CC and Thompson FL (2018) Perspectives on the Great Amazon Reef: Extension, Biodiversity, and ThreatsFront. Mar.Sci. 5:142.

Huss M and Hock R (2015) A new model for global glacier change and sea-level riseFront. Earth Sci. 3:54.

Mayr A, Klambauer G, Unterthiner T and Hochreiter S (2016) DeepTox: Toxicity Prediction using Deep LearningFront. Environ. Sci. 3:80.

Passini E, Britton OJ, Lu HR, Rohrbacher J, Hermans AN, Gallacher DJ, Greig RJH, Bueno-Orovio A and Rodriguez B (2017) Human In Silico Drug Trials Demonstrate Higher Accuracy than Animal Models in Predicting Clinical Pro-Arrhythmic CardiotoxicityFront. Physiol. 8:668.

Carhart-Harris RL, Leech R, Hellyer PJ, Shanahan M, Feilding A, Tagliazucchi E, Chialvo DR and Nutt D (2014) The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugsFront. Hum. Neurosci. 8:20.

Khare E, Temple S, Tomov I, Zhang F and Smoukov SK (2018) Low Fatigue Dynamic Auxetic Lattices With 3D Printable, Multistable, and Tuneable Unit CellsFront. Mater. 5:45.

Kimes NE, Callaghan AV, Aktas DF, Smith WL, Sunner J, Golding BT, Drozdowska M, Hazen TC, Suflita JM and Morris PJ (2013) Metagenomic analysis and metabolite profiling of deep-sea sediments from the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oilspillFront. Microbiol. 4:50.

Jovel J, Patterson J, Wang W, Hotte N, O’Keefe S, Mitchel T, Perry T, Kao D, Mason AL, Madsen KL and Wong GK-S (2016) Characterization of the Gut Microbiome Using 16S or Shotgun MetagenomicsFront. Microbiol. 7:459.

Rezvani K and Rouce RH (2015) The Application of Natural Killer Cell Immunotherapy for the Treatment of CancerFront. Immunol. 6:578.