Systems Biologist, New York University
Chronicling the parts of cell anatomy class-style is all well and good, says Richard Bonneau, 33, but biologists’ true holy grail is understanding how each part dictates the function of the others. “You might know that A is related to B, but if you don’t have a dynamic picture of your system, you don’t know which part is affecting which,” he says. “I want to put the arrows on the lines, so to speak.”
By tracking activity in almost all the genes of a free-living archaeon—which, like a bacterium, is a prokaryote—Bonneau was recently able to piece together how the genes affected one another’s expression, enabling him to map the organism’s “control circuit” as if it were a machine. In the process, he found something surprising: Instead of generating completely different responses to external stimuli like light and toxic chemicals, “the archaeon takes those environmental stimuli and puts them into the same integrator,” he says. “There’s not an infinite number of responses.” Knowing the limited range of behaviors that microorganisms display, he adds, will prove a big help in engineering them to churn out drugs and biofuels. —Elizabeth Svoboda
Inventor, Humdinger Wind Energy
Shawn Frayne, 27, has a knack for creating simple technological solutions that make a difference for people in developing nations. He was part of the team that introduced sugarcane-based charcoal as a cheap cooking fuel, and his solar disinfecting plastic bags purify water for drinking.
It is his Windbelt, though, that may have the most impact. Inspired by the dynamics of the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Frayne spent four years developing the world’s first turbineless wind generator. When the wind blows, it causes a flap of Mylar-coated taffeta fabric to vibrate rapidly, moving magnets fitted on either end past coils to generate electricity. In the developing world, the 10 watts it produces can light a room at night by electricity rather than expensive and dangerous kerosene.
By selling intellectual property rights for his inventions to big companies, Frayne hopes to fund more innovative projects for developing nations. “That is where the biggest challenges are, and it’s where I think most of the invention and innovation are going to come from in my lifetime,” he says. “It would be crazy to work anywhere else.” —A. G.
Geneticist, University of Chicago/Howard Hughes Medical Institute
It’s easy to think of evolution as something that happened millions of years ago, but Jonathan Pritchard, 37, has proved we’re actually adapting to our environment in real time. Using statistical models to home in on genetic mutations that spread quickly throughout populations, Pritchard and his colleagues have identified hundreds of regions of the genome that have recently been transformed by natural selection. “If a new mutation arose in a certain population and it was strongly favored, natural selection would drive the frequency of that allele up very quickly,” he says. “Most of the time there are only small frequency differences between human groups, so when there are big frequency differences, they really stand out.” —E. S.