FALLING WALLS CONFERENCE 2015 SESSION 2 AT A GLANCE

“The stars have been uniting humanity throughout our history,” contends Brian Schmidt, an astronomer at the Australian National University. Long-standing questions of how the universe may have formed are finally coming into view as researchers look into deep space. Visible observations can see back 13.8 billion years, to a time 50 million years after the big bang, while sound wave maps access a time 380,000 years after the event. “But we aren’t able to see the first stars or galaxies,” Schmidt explains; such capabilities may arise soon with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Schmidt is also engaged in exoplanet discovery. “The average star like our sun has a planet not dissimilar from the Earth,” he says, “and we hope to be able to look for gases like oxygen” in exoplanet atmospheres, which could suggest a biological signature.

 

CRISPR-Cas9 is arguably the hottest trend in biological research, a streamlined, multiplexable, efficient method of gene editing that heralds an exciting and terrifying world of efficient crops and designer babies. Emmanuelle Charpentier, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, is often credited with co-discovering the tool, which is based on a microbial defense mechanism that homes in on foreign genetic material and destroys it. “We want a technology that is easy to use, is cheap, and is also versatile,” says Charpentier. Previous editing tools (like zinc finger proteins and TALENs) had to be painstakingly customized based on the target of interest; CRISPR-Cas9 uses a common protein, requiring only a unique RNA guide to specify the target. “This has been very useful for the genetics of bacteria and fungi, and also plants and animals,” Charpentier notes. “We have the ability to correct mutations.”

falling walls 2015

 

One of the most promising proposals for global economic growth seems simple: increase gender equality in the workplace worldwide, and a $28 trillion benefit may soon follow. This assertion that greater equality will improve economic growth is well-accepted, but Naila Kabeer, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, turned the question around: does economic growth lead to increased gender equality? In many respects, including wages and work hours, the answer is yes, but ingrained discrepancies remain, frequently reflected in the type of work being done. It is the “casual, precarious forms of work” that Kabeer believes mask the real issue: the overall gap is closing, but much of the apparent work gains are attributable to household efforts or other “domestic” tasks, particularly in the developing world. “We need political will and social support,” says Kabeer, to break down these barriers and reward productive work, regardless of who is doing it and how it fits into traditional views of gender roles.

 

Water security is the number one risk to the global economy, according to the World Economic Forum. Arjen Hoekstra of the University of Twente is working to address this growing challenge through four lenses: sustainability, security, efficiency, and equitable sharing. His “water footprint” concept incorporates externalities to get a more reliable sense of water use. The German water footprint extends around the world, since cotton from Turkey or flowers from Kenya, for example, go through the German marketplace. “We need water footprint caps at the river basin level,” Hoekstra advocates, a concept that would take a more regional, ecology-based approach to global water needs.

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