Top technical advances of 2020

COVID-19 diagnosis

A model of a test at home


Much of the world became aware of the disease now known as COVID-19 in January, and impressively, a diagnostic PCR test became available that same month. We have since seen an explosion of possible variations on this assay, including saliva testing that bypasses the need for skimpy swabs and a number of techniques that could be significantly faster and cheaper than PCR, including breath testing and home antigen testing, a diagnosis that Loop-Mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) and CRISPR combined, and even an AI model that detects tell-tale signs of COVID-19 from CT scans.

New ways in vaccine development

While the diagnostics gave us hard numbers about the devastating effects of SARS-CoV-2, the rapid development of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 meant that the pandemic would be under control. Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines were among the early leaders of the vaccine race, training the limelight on a newer technique that had been tried for other diseases but had not hit the market before 2020. The principle is to deliver a stretch of viral mRNA to recipient cells, which turn the transcripts into viral proteins and trigger an immune response.

That year, researchers also experimented with other innovative methods of making vaccines. In one example – which, unlike mRNA vaccines, would avoid the need for cold temperatures during transportation and storage – the researchers showed that a flu vaccine delivered orally as a thin film induced an immune response in mice.

Bring the lab home

A colony of spotted wings Drosophila Flying entomologist Hannah Burrack cared for at home


The scientific impact of the pandemic was far-reaching and required adjustment as many researchers were excluded from their laboratories to prevent infection. Among the creative tools scientists developed to continue their work was Cut & Tag @ home, a chromosome component profiling protocol that Steven Henikoff of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center developed in his laundry room.

Stem cells for less

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) have proven to be a boon to research, but most laboratories grow the cells in expensive commercial media that are often used to replenish the population. In an article earlier this year, the researchers described a DIY recipe for a medium with ingredients that cost a fraction of the commercial alternatives and only need to be changed every 3.5 days for the caretakers to have a weekend off.

Wire up the brain

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


In order to collect data on human brain activity, researchers usually have to plug their subjects into expensive MRI or PET scanners or attach wires to their skulls for a conventional EEG structure. However, advances in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology – much of it with a view to the consumer market for devices that could be used for applications such as games – offer neuroscientists the potential to collect a wealth of information on brain activity as subjects go following their daily activities. With the release of two new BCI headsets, NextMind, which decodes visual attention, and Neurosity Notion 2, an improved iteration of a product that although designed for coders but can also be used to collect research data, the field in further developed this year.

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