December 20, 2008

Top 10 Inventions of 2008

Learning and sharing your genetic secrets are at the heart of 23andMe's controversial new service — a $399 saliva test that estimates your predisposition for more than 90 traits and conditions ranging from baldness to blindness. Although 23andMe isn't the only company selling DNA tests to the public, it does the best job of making them accessible and affordable. The 600,000 genetic markers that 23andMe identifies and interprets for each customer are "the digital manifestation of you," says Wojcicki (pronounced Wo-jis-key), 35, who majored in biology and was previously a health-care investor. "It's all this information beyond what you can see in the mirror."

We are at the beginning of a personal-genomics revolution that will transform not only how we take care of ourselves but also what we mean by personal information. In the past, only élite researchers had access to their genetic fingerprints, but now personal genotyping is available to anyone who orders the service online and mails in a spit sample

Electric cars were always environmentally friendly, quiet, clean — but definitely not sexy. The Tesla Roadster has changed all that. A battery-powered sports car that sells for $100,000 and has a top speed of 125 m.p.h. (200 km/h), the Roadster has excited the clean-tech crowd since it was announced in 2003. Celebrities like George Clooney joined a long waiting list for the Roadster; magazines like Wired drooled over it. After years of setbacks and shake-ups, the first Tesla Roadsters were delivered to customers this year. Reviews have been ecstatic, but Tesla Motors has been hit hard by the financial crisis. Plans to develop an affordable electric sedan have been put on hold, and Tesla is laying off employees. But even if the Roadster turns out to be a one-hit wonder, it's been a hell of an (electric) ride.

When cable eventually dies, websites like Hulu will be held responsible. Unlike YouTube and other amateur-video- upload sites, Hulu is a hub for network TV shows and movies: Hulu offers shows from nbc, Fox, pbs and other channels, including free full episodes of SNL, The Daily Show, The Office and other hits the TiVo-less masses often miss, plus films like Ghostbusters, The Fifth Element and Lost in Translation. Created as a network-approved alternative to YouTube's grab bag, Hulu was at first roundly mocked as a ham-fisted corporate knockoff of the grass-roots glory that is YouTube. (It was also mocked for its weird name.) Instead it proved that suits can play in the Internet video space too and that studio content can coexist online with the user-generated kind. In doing so, it delivered the final blow that untethered TV from that box in your living room.

Superman had it right: if you want to keep something safe, build a mountain fortress above the Arctic Circle. That's the thinking — more or less — behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Almost every nation keeps collections of native seeds so local crops can be replanted in case of an agricultural disaster. The Global Seed Vault, opened this year on the far-northern Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, is a backup for the backups. It's badly needed — as many as half the seed banks in developing countries are at risk from natural disasters or general instability. The vault can hold up to 4.5 million samples, which will be kept dry at about 0°F (-18°C). Even if the facility loses power, the Arctic climate should keep the seeds viable for thousands of years. Let's just hope we still like corn then.

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