The best ideas and innovations of 2012

Hovding bicycle helmet airbag
A bicycle helmet airbag, developed by Hovding, is worn as a collar while riding and inflates when it senses a crash.

Science journalist Garth Sundem will join The Daily Circuit Jan. 3 to discuss the most amazing and impressive ideas and innovations of 2012. We'll discuss everything from artificial DNA to airbag bike helmets and sugar-powered pacemakers.

In addition to the Scientific American list of innovations, Sundem gave us some of his favorites:

Research on information flow through networks. It turns out that a school of fish changing directions is mathematically the same as a group of people changing opinions. And, for example, the network structure of Venice, Calif. in the 1970s allowed the aberrant behavior of skateboarding dry pools to grow into a national norm. Information flow through networks also shows why Spain beat Holland in the 2010 World Cup. Researchers are using databases to ask questions about the social world never asked before.

microRNA. Between a gene and its expression is microRNA, which can turn up or turn down the rate at which the gene is manufactured into "stuff". These little buggers aren't actually part of the "genome" per se, butare just now being understood, and could lead to important discoveries in Alzheimer's, autism and cancer.

Modeling diversity. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study tested students on a problem-solving task. Then they made groups and tested problem solving a second time -- some were homogenous groups of the top scorers and others were diverse groups pulled randomly from across the ability spectrum. You can see the punch line: the diverse problem-solving groups roundly thumped homogenous groups of the top scorers. It turns out there are systems in which diversity has measurable value...and situations in which it doesn't. This has real world value for stock portfolios and basketball teams as well as business groups.

And four more of the innovations that Sundem talked about with Kerri Miller:

1) Glucose-fueled pacemakers
Right now, pacemakers' batteries need to be replaced. This new technology is like a potato clock - but in this case you are the potato. Scientists are using the sugars in your own blood to drive electrical devices, in this case pacemakers. You would never need to recharge it through wires that exit your body or get the battery replaced through surgery.

2) XNA
A big story two or three years ago was synthetic life. You could create artificial life that would eat oil, for example, or turn wastewater into electricity, but the problem is there's a chance this synthetic DNA could escape and become part of the world genome in general. The big story of this last year is instead of using DNA, they're using XNA, which uses synthetic base pairs to create life that could not interbreed with existing life.

3) 3D printing of body parts
3D printing has been around for a while, but now scientists can stack sheets of biofilm and print cells onto them. Scientists can now print working vascular tissue, and they're getting very close to printing functional organs like kidney tissue, liver tissue, heart tissue. The technology is disturbingly similar to an inkjet printer.

4) Nanotechnology
Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital are developing nanobubbles of oxygen delivered in solution to people who are having pulmonary complications. The injectable fluid of oxygen bubbles would circulate in your system and you wouldn't have to breathe for up to 15 minutes. Another development is the use of gold nanoparticles to trap exhaled breath and test it for signatures of lung cancer. Scientists are also using nanoparticles for drug delivery.

Hovding bicycle helmet airbag
A bicycle helmet airbag, developed by Hovding, is worn as a collar while riding and inflates when it senses a crash.