All the World’s a Laboratory All the World’s a Laboratory
Issue 014

All the World’s a Laboratory

by Nikhil Swaminathan

January 1, 2009

Three long-term science projects that could change everything we know about science.

Albert Einstein called scientific discovery "a continual flight from wonder." Today, the path from wonder has an expensive toll. We've solved the basics-gravity, relativity, DNA-but our new queries require greater collaboration, more sophisticated equipment, and oodles of cash. Take the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider. Its objective, when it goes online this spring, is to tell us how the universe began and how its parts fit together. Here's a look at three lesser-known megaprojects that aim to explain, improve, and possibly extend life.1. The Human Genome Project, officially completed in 2003, consists of one person's DNA. But take any two people, and their DNA will be 99 percent the same. Researchers need more data to probe the roots of complex disorders, like cancer, heart disease, and autism, which likely involve multiple genetic mutations. The solution? The 1,000 Genomes Project, which will sequence the DNA of at least 1,000 people worldwide-at a cost of up to $50 million-to catalogue alterations in the tiny bit of DNA that differs from person to person.2. In 2006, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, created with $100 million from Paul Allen, Microsoft's other founder, released the Allen Brain Atlas. A freely available 3-D map showing the activity of 20,000 genes throughout an adult mouse brain, it's a boon to scientists developing therapies to combat human mental disorders. In March, the institute began a four-year project to similarly map the human brain, as well as a two-year endeavor to track gene activity in the mouse brain from embryo to adulthood.3. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor-a collaboration among China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the U.S.-is a $13-billion effort to develop a working nuclear-fusion reactor in southeastern France. As opposed to fission-which creates energy by splitting unstable uranium and plutonium atoms (and can result in runaway reactions like the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown)-fusion creates vast amounts of energy by jamming two hydrogen atoms together. It's technically safer and produces less radioactive waste, but there are catches: A fusion reaction requires temperatures that are 10 times hotter than the sun's center.
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All the World’s a Laboratory