SCIENCE

14 of 2022’s best biotech research discoveries

We provide a glimpse into some of the greatest new discoveries in biotechnology from 2022 that are inspiring scientists across the globe to continue pioneering a better future.

10 mins to read

Biotechnology trends in 2022 are leading to breakthroughs in the world of medicine, industry, environmental health and beyond. By combining natural biological processes with engineering and technology, it’s a field that uses innovation to solve complex problems and make the world a better place. Or, as Steve Jobs puts it, “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.”

In this article, we provide a glimpse into some of the greatest new discoveries in biotechnology from 2022 that are inspiring scientists across the globe to continue pioneering a better future.

#1. Most efficient carbon capture system to date

Researchers in Tokyo have developed the world’s fastest carbon dioxide (CO2) catcher system, which removes CO2 from the air with 99% efficiency, under a low (400ppm) carbon flow.

The new CO2 catcher system overcomes limitations discovered in other systems, where slow processing times and sustainability concerns presented major barriers to widespread use. To remove carbon at an efficiency of about 70-80%, these systems often needed temperatures of over 1292 °F. That is, until researchers discovered that a compound called isophorone diamine (IPDA) only requires heating at 60°C to capture CO2 at a rate twice as fast as other systems.

Why does this matter? A system for actively reducing CO2 in the atmosphere would make a perfect pairing with other emissions-reducing policies for maximum effect against climate change.

#2. New cornea replacement able to restore sight

Damage or disease to the cornea causes blindness in over 12 million people globally. The sole treatment option has traditionally been a corneal transplant, but that presents issues due to a scarcity of quality tissue grafts from human donors – which are only viable for transplant for two weeks after donation – or limited healthcare access that has meant low and middle income countries are missing out on transplants.

With this issue in mind, researchers in Sweden developed an alternative: a bioengineered cornea made of collagen purified from pig skin produced as a by-product of industrial food production (a material already used for other medical purposes). Not only are these bioengineered corneas more accessible and economically viable, but they can also be stored for up to two years. Clinical trial results showed there were no complications following the implant, yet just as many benefits – and fewer follow-up appointments needed – when compared to human donated corneas. Cell-free corneas were just as effective as donor transplants according to trial results; sight was restored to all 20 trial participants, most of whom were blind.

With further clinical trials, these corneas could be a game-changer for safe, affordable, effective, and accessible treatment for corneal blindness across the world.

#3. Lab grown timber

The world’s supply of timber is increasingly under strain as deforestation continues to threaten forests and the biodiversity contained within them. Researchers at MIT have published a technique that involves “growing” wood-like products in the lab as an environmentally friendly alternative.

In their experiments, they engineered normal plant cells to have stem cell-like capabilities. Using certain chemicals, they noticed they could change the physical and mechanical properties of the plant material to make it more supple or more rigid, and with 3D bioprinting, they could grow it into new custom shapes and forms that trees wouldn’t naturally grow into.

While this work is still in the early stages, these results show that cellular-level changes in plant cell culture can determine material properties at a macro level, which is a great finding that can now be replicated in new woody species and attempted at larger scales.

If lab grown timber can be produced commercially, wood products could be produced quickly to have the exact features and qualities needed of a certain product, in any season and climate in the world, without leaving any waste, without the hazards that come with traditional forestry work, and all without cutting a single tree. The Lorax would approve.

#4. CRISPR gene technology for higher crop yields

Ever heard of CRISPR? (Otherwise known as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which is significantly less catchy).

Obtained from the immune defense system in bacteria, CRISPR is a nifty tool that essentially allows researchers to find and edit specific bits of DNA in an organism’s genetic makeup. While there are of course ethical concerns to take into consideration, CRISPR is undoubtedly changing the biotechnology world.

Rice and maize are the most important crops in the world. Interestingly, the two species have many similar genes despite coming from completely different continents. In farm field trials this year, scientists discovered they could boost the yield of rice and maize by up to 10% by switching off a particular gene with the help of CRISPR technology – as a result, the maize plants produced more rows of kernels, and the rice plants produced more grains. Innovating high-yielding, resilient crops may be crucial for feeding the human population, which has just surpassed 8 billion.

In other studies from 2022, CRISPR has been used for diverse purposes like improving the taste of beer, discovering new possible candidates for antibiotics, developing biocontrol for invasive pests, and much more.

#5. DeepMind AI learned common sense physics like a human baby would

Artificial intelligence has been trending for some time in the biotechnology space – since the 1950s, in fact. However, new, impressive developments in AI continue to progress in the field in 2022.

When young infants develop, they begin to intuitively learn basic rules of physics that help them perceive and understand the world. You may or may not have heard about babies learning object permanence, for example: if the mother of a two-month-old baby leaves her baby’s room, the baby may cry, thinking mom no longer exists if she isn’t in view. By about 8 months, the baby learns that mom does still exist, even if she isn’t visible right now – and that represents a huge leap in learning.

Now, a study published in the Nature Human Behavior journal details how a team of computer scientists created a deep learning system that picks up on intuitive physics, inspired by the natural development of human infants. This deep learning system consists of a neural network; basically, a software that can detect patterns in data. After hours of training the system via videos of balls rolling down slopes or bouncing off other balls, the system could then pick up on videos where the physics was deliberately wrong.

The creation of this model is an interesting step for understanding human cognition for one, and secondly, for exploring more to do with the learning methods and capabilities of AI.

#6. Artificial floating leaves can produce clean fuel

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have taken inspiration from nature, inventing lightweight, artificial leaves that float on the surfaces of water bodies and ‘photosynthesize’. The artificial leaves absorb sunlight and water to produce clean fuels – just like a plant produces fuel for its own growth – all for a low cost and without taking up land resources in the process.

If production of these proof-of-concept devices is scaled up, they offer a promising glimpse into a future of sustainable (and rather idyllic) fuel production, lightly floating on ponds and seas.

#7. Algae microbots for drug delivery

Fun fact: tiny robots, that can cruise around the body to deliver medications to target tissues, already exist. However, a new type of microbot has been made using microalgae, which is the microscopic algae found in abundance in waterways.

Microalgae are biocompatible transporters in the human body, making them safer and longer-lasting compared to previous microbots, and their natural swimming ability provides a great advantage. Overall, algae motors tend to be far more efficient than synthetic micromotors.

It’s not the only new microbot on the scene this year – an adorable, submillimeter robot crab and an acrobatic origami robot are other 2022 inventions in the emerging field of teensy robots.

#8. A handheld DNA device assesses water safety within minutes

Ever wondered how you can tell whether water is safe to drink or not? Scientists have invented a new device that takes in a water sample, assesses for contaminants and lets the user know whether the water is safe, extremely contaminated, or somewhere in between.

The low-cost, handheld device contains eight tubes that glow green in response to the concentration of contaminants. Amazingly, they made the device by reprogramming natural genetic machinery in bacteria. The same circuitry that allows bacteria to taste their water, was here rewired to work as a biosensor, able to detect 17 different contaminants and process that information in order to show a visual signal.

The device is called ROSALIND (short for RNA output sensors activated by ligand induction), inspired by Rosalind Franklin, who first discovered the double-helix structure of DNA.

If implemented, this smart diagnostics tool could be vastly helpful for human health and environmental monitoring.

We’ve barely skimmed the surface when it comes to the many fascinating innovations happening right now in the biotechnology sphere. Here are a few more notable discoveries published in 2022:

#9. Cyborg cockroaches powered by little solar-powered backpacks

...were invented by researchers in Japan. They could have applications in urban search and rescue, like helping to detect people trapped in rubble caused by earthquakes.

#10. A new system called OrganEx was able to partially revive pig organs hours after death

...using a synthetic blood cocktail and a device that mimics the heart. Though further research is needed, it is hoped this technology could work to preserve transplant organs for longer and help to save lives.

#11. Researchers in Germany created a ‘photosynthesizing metal’

...via a molecule that can turn sunlight into clean, hydrogen fuel, whether in light or dark.

#12. A new, sustainable bacterial engineering method can turn industrial emissions like CO2 into sought-after chemicals for industry

...(i.e., acetone and isopropanol). It’s a great move for creating a circular economic model that creates value from waste.

#13. A “smart finger” utilizes AI and electrical current to distinguish between the tactile feeling of different materials

...Researchers believe it could someday be used to restore tactile perception to individuals with prosthetic limbs.

#14. A material made from plant fibers could be integrated into sustainable devices

...Cellulose fibers from plants are most often thermal insulators but these researchers fabricated a cellulose material that is thermally conductive, holding promise for greener technology in the future.

Curious about what researchers discovered about MitoQ in 2022? Check out the latest MitoQ research

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