I am a gardener. I love sowing seeds or digging vulnerable baby plants into rich earth in my backyard. As fellow gardeners will know, the journey from these early phases of growth to the enjoyment of fruits, vegetables, or flowers is seldom a straight line. Successfully growing plants is often punctuated by challenges, frustrations, and failures along the way. As plants struggle to reach maturity, competitors can sap the resources they need to grow, pests and diseases can damage their leaves and stems, and the climate can drown or dehydrate them. Sometimes, even when plants make it to maturity, fruit withers or freezes on the vine.
This same nonlinear trajectory seems to play out in the innovation pipeline as germinal ideas blossom into fully realized commercial products, methods, or technologies. A suitable substrate and growth-conducive environmental conditions (soil and a moist, warm climate in the case of plants; a welcoming and wide-open environment for ideas) are essential to the maturation process. But just as weeds, pests, and wild climatic swings can hinder plants, doubts, failures, competition, or resource limitation can doom innovation. In addition, scientific products mature on a protracted timeline—instead of a growing season, decades can stretch between fundamental insight and commercial realization—increasing a potential innovation’s exposure to such difficulties.
Yet, here we are at the end of another year, with an abundant crop of innovations to celebrate. It’s appropriate that The Scientist’s December issue, where we highlight the winners of our annual Top 10 Innovations competition, is also centered around the theme of cell biology. As the past several years have demonstrated, basic biological discovery tends to focus on the levels of the cell and its molecules, with new tools making it increasingly possible to peek inside cells to uncover the secrets they harbor.
Evidence of this harmony between technological innovation and fundamental biological discovery is on display in a feature article from Archa Fox, a cell biologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth who writes about her role in detecting novel structures called paraspeckles inside the nuclei of cells. Fox tells a tale that stretches back nearly two decades, to her time as a postdoc studying nuclear proteins. Over the course of her research journey, she encountered feelings of isolation and doubt as she strove to legitimize her discovery and characterize the cellular features she had found. Through fruitful collaborations and the use of enabling technologies such as fluorescent labels and super-resolution microscopy, she managed to bring paraspeckles into the light, and now there are several labs studying these tiny membraneless organelles.
Another story in our December issue, written by associate editor Shawna Williams, similarly showcases the potential of advanced technologies, this time to help researchers and clinicians battle the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease. Henrik Zetterberg, a University of Gothenburg researcher who is engaged in the quest to find reliable and meaningful biomarkers of the neurodegenerative disease, tells her that improvements in protein analysis have been instrumental in driving research in the field over the last decade.
I expect this year’s crop of Top 10 Innovations to facilitate advances across the life-science spectrum, from basic insights into the structure and function of cells and subcellular structures to breakthroughs in the clinic. Some of the winning products—such as a new mass photometer, a long-read sequencer, and a live-cell imaging microscope—are poised to grant laboratory researchers access to previously inaccessible regions of biology. Others—such as a wireless blood glucose tester and a platform for detecting biomarkers in patients’ breath—are already changing the way physicians treat their patients.
As I look forward to 2020, I do not anticipate that the pace of innovation in the life sciences will slow one bit. Researchers will continue to overcome the considerable challenges that face them to develop technologies that will bear healthy fruits for years to come.