Technologies to watch in 2020

Better cryo-EM samples

In two or three years, I think that transmission cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) will become the most powerful tool for deciphering the structures of macromolecules. These structures are crucial for understanding biochemical mechanisms and drug development, and methods for solving them more efficiently can speed up such work.

Improving RNA analysis

I’m keeping my eye on long-read RNA sequencing and live-cell imaging using light-up RNA strands called aptamers. These technologies are still maturing, but I expect big changes in the next year or two.

Decoding the microbiome

Over the past decade, methods for sequencing the genetic content of microbial communities have probed the composition of the human microbiome. More recently, scientists have tried to learn what the microbiome is doing by integrating information about genes, transcripts, proteins and metabolites. Metabolites are especially interesting: they could offer the closest understanding of how the microbiome affects our health, because many host-microbiome interactions occur through the metabolites that bacteria generate and consume.

Computing cancer

When it comes to cancer, we cannot see the process by which the disease forms, only its end point: we sample a tumour when it has become clinically detectable. By then, the tumour has acquired many mutations, and we’re left to work out what happened.

Enhancing gene therapy

We’re now about 15 years into large-scale experiments to map enhancers and other regulatory DNA sequences that control how genes are read out by cells and organs. Although more work is needed to complete these maps, we’re at the point at which we can harness our understanding to control the genome more precisely.

Single-cell sequencing

I’m interested in how we bring medicines to patients faster and more accessibly. The technologies required are multifaceted. On the one hand, there’s discovery — for example, single-cell sequencing methods. On the other hand, there’s the matter of getting the technology to the patient — the manufacturing part. This is particularly relevant to medicines for rare diseases or for small populations, and is even applicable to global access to medicines we already have.

Linking genome structure and function

When you stretch out a single cell’s DNA end to end, it’s roughly 2 metres long — yet it has to fit into a nucleus with a diameter smaller than the head of a pin. The folding patterns cannot be random; chromosomes form 3D structures that must be spatially and temporally regulated across an organism’s lifespan.

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