Gene-edited donor pig hearts, fake milk, waste-powered fuels and a 5G-enabled era where all of our devices talk to each other - these are some of the highlights we can expect in the next decade of technology, writes science reporter Jamie Morton

5G, AI and The Internet of Things

The so-called
The so-called "Internet of Things" will now become a reality, with the new era of connectivity that is 5G. Photo / File

It's called the "Internet of Things", or IOT – a new era of tech where almost any connected device will be able to link up and analyse one another's data.

We've already had a taste of this with smartphones that talk to our car sound systems or cast video to the family TV - but things are about to ramp up rapidly.

"I think the big changes will come with low-cost sensors embedded in everyday objects," says AUT's head of computer sciences, Professor Dave Parry.

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"So, clothes that tell the washing machine what temperature to use, or pot plants that can ask to be watered and phones that let you find things.

"Big advances may well come in agriculture where high-value objects need to be monitored and located."

One working example is the so-called "internet of sheep", where technology is being used to keep an eye on grazing stock.

In health, Parry saw more development in linking up fitness devices, weight measurements, location trackers and even music choices.

"On the downside – this information is potentially vulnerable, so security and above all usability will need to be improved before these devices reach their full potential."

What will enable it all is the arrival of 5G, and its ability to essentially deliver high-speed broadband to anywhere a cellular signal can be mustered.

"This is a key technology if you are going to track deliveries on a building site, or low-cost pollution monitors in streams and off beaches," Parry says.

Put together, 5G and IOT could mean anything we want it to – and dealing with this constant flood of data would require new artificial intelligence to sift through it.

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"A particular use of AI will be to help compare data from different IOT sources to check accuracy and build a meaningful picture of what is going on," Parry says.

"IOT devices linked to AI systems via 5G may be able to monitor high-risk ecological areas in order to respond to threats – such as rat populations with vastly more targeted measures.

"Localised weather forecasts will become more available and buildings and cities can become much smarter by managing traffic controls, or air conditioning systems in a dynamic fashion."

"Your car will be able to transmit real-time diagnostic information about tyre wear or engine performance, it may change its breaking behaviour when rain sensors in the road detect a risk, or even send off automatic insurance claims if it hits something."

Would we move any closer to AI-powered driverless vehicles becoming a mainstay on motorways?

Despite the hype, Parry pointed out that what fully automated vehicles we had so far had performed poorly in complex environments, such as city streets where even wayward plastic bags could trigger problems as they blew across a road.

"The other issue is that, unless we change how we work, having everyone commute at the same time in a driverless car only reduces the congestion by around 50 per cent, as they can be closer together and form trains," he said.

"I would be surprised to see true driverless cars on open roads before 2030 – although they could be dual-use and have their own lanes on motorways before then."

Gene editing

Gene splicing and editing has been around for decades - but when it comes to one revolutionary tool, scientists have only just begun to realise its possibilities.

When you hear scientists talk about "Crisper", they're likely referring to CRSPR/Cas9, short for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats".

It's a naturally-occurring process that draws on prokaryotic DNA containing short repetitions of base sequences.

Each is followed by short segments of "spacer DNA" that has previously been exposed to viruses so they can be employed the next time one attacks.

The second part of the picture, Cas9, is an enzyme that can enable a genome to be cut at any location.

Given CRSPR/Cas9's now well-proven potential to effectively delete or edit out unwanted genes, and then introduce normal ones, commentators have talked about curing genetic disease or creating designer babies.

The world's science community was left horrified when one rogue scientist, Shenzhen-based He Jiankui, did just that by altering embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, to produce HIV-immune children.

What's to come in the 2020s?

Overseas, scientists have already made promising gains in using gene editing toward advancing cancer immunotherapy, kidney disease – and even stopping bird flu spreading.

Here, a panel convened by Royal Society Te Aparangi explored how gene editing might be used to stop possums and wasps from reproducing, or to prevent the passing on of diseases controlled by single genes – notably the BRCA1 gene that's known to raise the risk of cancer.

At AgResearch, scientists are about to use the latest gene-editing technology to create New Zealand's first "climate-smart" cow, with better milk production, greater heat tolerance, and fewer emissions.

They're also exploring whether genetically enhancing a special New Zealand breed of pig could make it an ideal organ donor for humans in the future.

Yet, given New Zealand's notoriously strict regulations on gene editing – and the current Government's lack of appetite for reform - it's unclear how much of this research will make its out of the lab and into Kiwi life.

But AUT's Associate Professor Dong-Xu Liu said there were still legitimate concerns about the technology, especially when it came to human gene therapy.

"Due to our limited knowledge, we may not fully understand all the functions of a gene in our body," Liu said.

We still didn't know what consequences might come with permanently removing a gene – or introducing an edited one, that would become part of the human gene pool for good.

"I think we currently aren't able to predict the consequences of these artificially-edited organisms."

Organ printing?

What's called
What's called "bio-printing" offers an innovative solution to global shortages in donor organs. Image / 123RF

3D printing has proven one of the most talked-about innovations of the last decade – but it will be within the next one that we begin to realise its true significance, says AUT's Associate Professor Sarat Singamneni.

One big area is "bio-printing" – something that, like gene editing, also has potential to solve long-standing demand for organs like livers, kidneys and even hearts.

One approach being used by scientists involves printing a sponge-like biodegradable polymer scaffold, on to which stem cells can be seeded and incubated.

As the cells develop, the polymer degrades at the same rate, meaning it completely dissolves by the time the cells have grown into an organ.

The second uses a gelatine-like goo called hydrogel, which is used to get the cells into the right shape as they are being printed.

As the cells are harvested directly from the patient, there is a much lower risk of them being rejected.

Most of the organs scientists have so far succeeded in printing are relatively simple ones, such as tracheas, heart valves and bladders.

In recent years, researchers have created mini-organs, known as "organoids", containing many of the cell types and complex microarchitectures found in human organs, such as the kidney, liver, intestine and even the brain.

But most of the lab-grown organoids have lacked the intricate networks of tiny blood vessels needed to provide oxygen and nutrients, flush out metabolic waste and link different cell types.

In this space, there have been some promising developments.

This year, for instance, a team of US scientists created a 3D bioprinter that could print vessels less than a third of a millimetre wide in bio-compatible hydrogels.

Another team from Harvard University found a powerful new approach that enabled stem cell-derived kidney organoids to vascularise and mature further than they could before.

And, in another world-first, researchers at Israel's Tel Aviv University printed the world's first 3D vascularised engineered heart, using a patient's own cells and biological materials.

Beyond the medical world, Singamneni expected significant growth in using 3D printing in the aerospace and automotive industries.

More importantly, he predicts a big barrier that has held the technology back from being applied more widely – the lack of quality assurance – will be resolved in the next decade.

Alternative fuels

Hyundai's hydrogen-fuelled Nexo. Photo / NZ Herald
Hyundai's hydrogen-fuelled Nexo. Photo / NZ Herald

The smallest, lightest and most common element in the universe is being touted as the zero-emissions answer to New Zealand's "just transition" away from oil and gas.

But, as the new decade dawns, AUT's Dr Marcus Jones expects it will still be a long time before hydrogen becomes a viable option to power green transport.

"The problem is cost," he explains.

"Hydrogen-powered cars are more expensive than their petrol-powered cousins, and hydrogen production costs are high."

It's currently about 10 times more expensive to produce hydrogen in New Zealand than it is to produce a volume of natural gas with the same total energy content.

The cost of 1 kWh worth of hydrogen is also about three times more than the same amount electrical energy.

There is, however, a lot of research aimed at reducing these costs, Jones says.

Scientists are trying to improve the performance and durability of fuel cell technologies by developing and optimising advanced electrocatalysts with reduced precious metal-loading to boost fuel cell efficiencies.

They're also searching for sustainable ways to produce hydrogen, such as using bio-organisms that generate hydrogen as part of their metabolic processes, or using direct sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

There's also a big focus today on developing new hydrogen storage materials that are able to safely and rapidly absorb and desorb large volumes of hydrogen - eliminating the need to store hydrogen in high-pressure vessels.

Another new source of fuel which could become more prominent next decade is what's called biofuel – and types produced from crops such as corn and switchgrass are already widely used in gasoline and diesel fuels.

Jones predicts new technologies and processes that produce fuels from waste, inedible crops or forestry products are being developed and are likely to become the primary form of biofuels in the future.

Fake meat, fake milk

Expect to see more innovation in alternative proteins - like those used in Impossible Foods' Impossible Burger - next decade. Image / Supplied
Expect to see more innovation in alternative proteins - like those used in Impossible Foods' Impossible Burger - next decade. Image / Supplied

You've only got to look at Hell's "Burger Pizza", Burger Fuel's Impossible with Cheese or KFC's Beyond Chicken to know alternative proteins aren't a thing of tomorrow, but one already here.

A rising number of lab-grown and plant-powered products have hit the market over recent years – and the companies peddling them make the case that they're part of a cleaner, greener, future.

Ditching animal protein is seen by an increasing number of people as the only way to deal with the fact that, by 2050, the world's population will hit 10 billion, rendering the demand for meat higher than the industry's ability to supply it.

According to the journal Science, animal farming provides just 18 per cent of our calories, yet 83 per cent of agricultural land is dedicated to it, while greenhouse gas emissions, water and over-zealous antibiotic use pose further problems.

That might not exactly be the case for New Zealand farms, which, compared with other systems like grain fed, factory farming in the US, makes efficient use of land that's unsuitable for horticulture or arable production.

Nevertheless, alternative protein products such as Impossible Foods' heme – an iron-containing, oxygen-carrying molecule that makes for meat's red colour and distinctive flavour – has our industry concerned.

One industry report out last year found that alternative proteins were likely to become a major competitor to some of New Zealand's red meat products - and that the sector must respond with a clear strategy.

It also found that although alternative proteins are currently manufactured in small volumes, large-scale production of burger patties and mince was likely to be a reality within five years.

AUT's Professor Owen Young was sceptical of these vegan-friendly products, noting that, firstly, they shouldn't be seen as a substitute for meat, and secondly, they lacked many of red meat's most nutritious elements, like iron, zinc and the essential vitamin B12.

He saw a bigger threat to New Zealand's economy in the next generation of dairy-less dairy.

Scientists have been busy trying to synthesise two key proteins that give dairy its taste and look, casein and whey protein, with the goal of creating revolutionary new cow-free products that pack a good amino acid profile.

"In the case of dairy, you can make a very good ingredient - it doesn't look like milk but you've made a good, high-quality, protein," Young says.

"But I still think that trying to restructure to something to look like meat is a mistake."