Session 2: Sleep, Super Microscopes, Solving Poverty, and Food of the Future

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To start the day’s second session, the winners of yesterday’s Falling Walls Lab competition shared their microtalks with the audience. Srilahari Namani showed off her automated, real-time mosquito identification trap; Ashwin Charles discussed his photocatalytic approach to clean palm oil processing waste; and Agnes Reiner explained how extracellular vesicles could help catch ovarian cancer before it gets out of control.

Yuval Nir took the stage next, wondering aloud if sleep was really necessary. “It seems like such a waste of time, doesn’t it?” he asked. History is full of sleep under-estimators from the ancient Greeks to Margaret Thatcher; Thomas Edison even believed his light bulb could eliminate the need to sleep. Well, turns out sleep is pretty important, sustaining key functions like memory, attention, immunity, and metabolism, and Nir believes these secrets lie in slow brain waves – the long period fluctuations that show up in brain scans. He and his team found that slow brain waves aren’t as uniform and synchronous as previously thought, suggesting that a number of dynamic and distinct events are happening during sleep, and that parts of the brain could be more awake than we might think. What’s more, slow “sleep” brain waves and wakefulness waves are threaded throughout a sleep event – “it’s much more complex than we had thought,” Nir says.

Session 2 der Falling Walls Conference. Berlin, 09.11.2017. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/ photothek.net/ Falling Walls

Moerner demonstrates fluorescence. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/ photothek.net/ Falling Walls

William Moerner described the two “molecular walls” that have fallen in the last few decades. The first: detecting a single molecule with light, which allows scientists to get past mere average properties and actually observe heterogeneity. “We want to know if all the molecules are the same or if they are different for various reasons,” Moerner says, offering a window into what’s really happening at the nanoscale. The second: seeing details at the subcellular level, smashing through the so-called diffraction limit of light. By calculating the average location of flashing light, previously overlapping objects could be resolved. Using super-resolution microscopy, it’s now possible to see the placements of distinct proteins or genes within a cell. By felling these two walls, we’re gaining seeing life as it really is, in new and stunning detail.

Esther Duflo brings rigorous quantitative approaches to her work on global development. In terms of donor interest, her work has shown that specifics are more powerful than statistics, and that a sense of agency is more instigating than victimhood. Other framings of poverty are significant as well – viewing recipients as lazy marks them as less “worthy”, but seeing them as go-getter entrepreneurs gives the impression that no help is needed. The key to generating these pithy, actionable findings is randomized control trials, an experimental approach that attempts to distill “messy” human systems to their constituent parts and see which ingredients really matter.

Sayed Azam-Ali believes agriculture is at the nexus of three global challenges: a growing population, unsustainable resource use, and climate change. “What we’re seeing are the same four crops being used all over the world,” Azam-Ali explains, noting that wheat, rice, soy, and maize dominate caloric intake. Meanwhile, the vast majority of plant biodiversity has been going untapped. Through his research in Africa, Azam-Ali has come to champion local varieties; the bambara groundnut in particular became a favorite – it’s nutritious, protein-rich, fat-poor, and it even tastes good. Bringing regional specialties back into circulation and avoiding a globally homogenous diet will improve nutrition and bolster sustainability; after all, local crops are by definition well suited to grow in their native habitats. Citing a proverb, Azam-Ali notes that “when an African farmer dies, a library goes with him or her.” Preserving this knowledge will help agriculture stand up to the major challenges it faces.

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