Top Technical Advances of 2020

The pandemic spurred innovation in a variety of ways, from CRISPR-based diagnostics to cell biology benchwork at home.

Shawna Williams
Shawna Williams
Dec 18, 2020

COVID-19 diagnostics

A mockup of an at-home test
MAMMOTH BIOSCIENCES

Much of the world became aware of the disease now known as COVID-19 in January, and impressively, a diagnostic PCR test became available the same month. We’ve since seen an explosion in potential variations on that assay, including saliva tests, which bypass the need for scarce swabs, and a slew of techniques that could be considerably faster and cheaper than PCR, including breath tests, at-home antigen tests, a diagnostic that combines loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) and CRISPR, and even an AI model that detects telltale signs of COVID-19 from CT scans.

New paths in vaccine development

© ISTOCK.COM, SERHEII YAKOVLIEV

While diagnostics gave us hard numbers on SARS-CoV-2’s devastating sweep, the rapid development of vaccines against it allowed us to imagine the pandemic coming under control. mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were among the early leaders of the vaccine race, training the spotlight on a newer technique that had been attempted for other diseases but had not yet made it to the market before 2020. The principle is to deliver a stretch of viral mRNA to recipients’ cells, which go on to manufacture viral proteins from the transcripts, provoking an immune response.

The year also saw researchers experimenting with other innovative ways of producing vaccines. In one example—which, unlike with mRNA vaccines, would avoid the need for cold temperatures during transport and storage—researchers showed that a flu vaccine delivered orally as a thin film induced an immune response in mice.

Bringing the lab home

A colony of spotted wing Drosophila flies entomologist Hannah Burrack maintained at home
COURTESY HANNAH BURRACK

The pandemic’s effects on science were far-reaching, and necessitated adaptation as many researchers were shut out of their labs in a bid to prevent infection. Among the creative means scientists devised to continue their work was Cut&Tag@home, a protocol for profiling chromosome components that Steven Henikoff of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center devised in his laundry room.

Stem cells for less

© ISTOCK.COM, UNOL

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have proved a boon to research, but most labs grow the cells in expensive commercial media that require frequent tending to replenish the stock. In a paper at the start of this year, researchers described a DIY recipe for a medium with ingredients that cost a fraction of what commercial alternatives do, and that only needs to be changed every 3.5 days, enabling caretakers to have weekends off. 

Wiring the brain

Neurosity’s Notion headset, released in 2019, is one of a handful of consumer brain-computer interface devices that scientists are adapting for their EEG research.
STEVE GONG

Collecting data on humans’ brain activity typically requires researchers to put their subjects into expensive MRI or PET scanners, or to affix wires to their skulls for a traditional EEG setup. But advances in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology—much of it made with an eye toward the consumer market for devices that could be used for applications such as gaming—hold the potential for neuroscientists to gather a wealth of brain activity information as subjects go about their daily activities. The field continued to advance this year with the release of two new BCI headsets, NextMind, which decodes visual attention, and the Neurosity Notion 2, an upgraded iteration of a product that, while designed for coders, can also be used to collect research data.