MIT Institutional Research
Office of the Provost
  Research Highlights


The following are selected research achievements of MIT faculty and staff over the last four decades.

1969 Ioannis V. Yannas begins to develop artificial skin—a material used successfully to treat burn victims.

1970 David Baltimore reports the discovery of reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of RNA to DNA. The advance, which led to a Nobel Prize for Baltimore in 1975, provided a new means for studying the structure and function of genes.

1973 Jerome Friedman and Henry Kendall, with Stanford colleague Richard Taylor, complete a series of experiments confirming the theory that protons and neutrons are made up of minute particles called quarks. The three receive the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.

1974 Samuel C. C. Ting, Ulrich Becker, and Min Chen discover the “J” particle. The discovery, which earns Ting the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics, points to the existence of one of the six postulated types of quarks.

1975–1977 Barbara Liskov and her students design the CLU programming language, an object-oriented language that helps form the underpinnings for languages like Java and C++. As a result of this work and other accomplishments, Liskov later wins the Turing Award, considered the Nobel Prize in computing.

1975–1982 Joel Moses develops the first extensive computerized program (MACSYMA) able to manipulate algebraic quantities and perform symbolic integration and differentiation.

1976 H. Gobind Khorana and his research team complete chemical synthesis of the first human-manufactured gene fully functional in a living cell. The culmination of 12 years of work, it establishes the foundation for the biotechnology industry. Khorana won the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for other genetics work.

1977 Phillip Sharp discovers the split gene structure of higher organisms, changing the view of how genes arose during evolution. For this work, Sharp shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine.

1977 Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman invent the first workable public key cryptographic system. The new code, which is based on the use of very large prime numbers, allows secret communication between any pair of users. Still unbroken, the code is in widespread use today.

1979 Robert Weinberg reports isolating and identifying the first human oncogene—an altered gene that causes the uncontrolled cell growth that leads to cancer.

1981 Alan Guth publishes the first satisfactory model of the universe’s development in the first 10–32 seconds after the Big Bang.

1982 Alan Davison discovers a new class of technetium compounds that leads to the development of the first diagnostic technetium drug for imaging the human heart.

1985 Susumu Tonegawa describes the structure of the gene for the receptors—“anchor molecules”—on the white blood cells called T lymphocytes, the immune system’s master cells. In 1987, Tonegawa receives the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for similar work on the immune system’s B cells.

1986 H. Robert Horvitz identifies the first two genes found to be responsible for the process of cell death, which is critical both for normal body development and for protection against autoimmune diseases, cancer, and other disorders. Going on to make many more pioneering discoveries about the genetics of cell death, Horvitz shares the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for his work.

1988 Sallie Chisholm and associates report the discovery of a form of ocean plankton that may be the most abundant single species on earth.

1990 Julius Rebek, Jr. and associates create the first self-replicating synthetic molecule.

1990 Building on the discovery of the metathesis—the process of cutting carbon-carbon double bonds in half and constructing new ones—Richard Schrock devises a catalyst that greatly speeds up the reaction, consumes less energy, and produces less waste. A process based on his discovery is now in widespread use for efficient and more environmentally friendly production of important pharmaceuticals, fuels, synthetic fibers, and many other products. Schrock shares the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his breakthrough.

1991 Cleveland heart doctors begin clinical trials of a laser catheter system for microsurgery on the arteries that is largely the work of Michael Feld and his MIT associates.

1993 H. Robert Horvitz, together with scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, discover an association between a gene mutation and the inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

1993 David Housman joins colleagues at other institutions in announcing a successful end to the long search for the genetic defect linked with Huntington’s disease.

1993 Alexander Rich and postdoctoral fellow Shuguang Zhang report the discovery of a small protein fragment that spontaneously forms into membranes. This research will lead to advances in drug development, biomedical research, and the understanding of Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

1994 MIT engineers develop a robot that can “learn” exercises from a physical therapist, guide a patient through them, and—for the first time—record biomedical data on the patient’s condition and progress.

1995 Scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and MIT create a map of the human genome and begin the final phase of the Human Genome Project. This powerful map contains more than 15,000 distinct markers and covers virtually all of the human genome.

1996 A group of scientists at MIT’s Center for Learning and Memory, led by Matthew Wilson and Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, use new genetic and multiple-cell monitoring technologies to demonstrate how animals form memory about new environments.

1997 MIT physicists create the first atom laser, a device that is analogous to an optical laser but emits atoms instead of light. The resulting beam can be focused to a pinpoint or made to travel long distances with minimal spreading.

1998 MIT biologists, led by Leonard Guarente, identify a mechanism of aging in yeast cells that suggests researchers may one day be able to intervene in, and possibly inhibit, the aging process in certain human cells.

1998 An interdisciplinary team of MIT researchers, led by Yoel Fink and Edwin L. Thomas, invent the “perfect mirror,” which offers radical new ways of directing and manipulating light. Potential applications range from a flexible light guide that can illuminate specific internal organs during surgery to new devices for optical communications.

1999 Michael Cima, Robert Langer, and graduate student John Santini report the first microchip that can store and release chemicals on demand. Among its potential applications is a “pharmacy” that could be swallowed or implanted under the skin and programmed to deliver precise drug dosages at specific times.

1999 Alexander Rich leads a team of researchers in the discovery that left-handed DNA (also known as Z-DNA) is critical for the creation of important brain chemicals. Having first produced Z-DNA synthetically in 1979, Rich succeeds in identifying it in nature in 1981. He also discovers its first biological role and receives the National Medal of Science for this pioneering work in 1995.

2000 Scientists at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research and their collaborators announce the completion of the Human Genome Project. Providing about a third of all the sequences assembled, the Center was the single largest contributor to this international enterprise.

2000 Researchers develop a device that uses ultrasound to extract a number of important molecules noninvasively and painlessly through the skin. They expect that the first application will be a portable device for noninvasive glucose monitoring for diabetics.

2000 Researchers from the MIT Sloan School of Management launch the Social and Economic Explorations of Information Technology (SeeIT) Project, the first empirical study of the effects of information technology (IT) on organizational and work practices. Examining IT’s relationship to changes in these models, SeeIT provides practical data for understanding and evaluating IT’s business and economic effects, which will enable us to take full advantage of its opportunities and better control its risks.

2001 In a step toward creating energy from sunlight as plants do, Daniel Nocera and a team of researchers invent a compound that, with the help of a catalyst and energy from light, produces hydrogen.

2002 MIT researchers create the first acrobatic robotic bird—a small, highly agile helicopter for military use in mountain and urban combat.

2002–2005 Scientists at MIT, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and the Broad Institute complete the genomes of the mouse, the dog, and four strains of phytoplankton, photosynthetic organisms that are critical for the regulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide. They also identify the genes required to create a zebrafish embryo. In collaboration with scientists from other institutions, they map the genomes of chimpanzees, humans’ closest genetic relative, and the smallest known vertebrate, the puffer fish.

2003 MIT scientists cool a sodium gas to the lowest temperature ever recorded—a half-a-billionth of a degree above absolute zero. Studying these ultra-low temperature gases will provide valuable insights into the basic physics of matter; and by facilitating the development of better atomic clocks and sensors for gravity and rotation, they also could lead to vast improvements in precision measurements.

2004 MIT’s Levitated Dipole Experiment, a collaboration among scientists at MIT and Columbia, generates a strong dipole magnetic field that enables them to experiment with plasma fusion, the source of energy that powers the sun and stars, with the goal of producing it on Earth. Because the hydrogen that fuels plasma fusion is practically limitless and the energy it produces is clean and doesn’t contribute to global warming, fusion power will be of enormous benefit to humankind and to earth systems in general.

2004 A team led by neuroscientist Mark Bear illuminates the molecular mechanisms underlying Fragile X Syndrome and shows that it might be possible to develop drugs that treat the symptoms of this leading known inherited cause of mental retardation, whose effects range from mild learning disabilities to severe autism.

2004 Shuguang Zhang, Marc A. Baldo, and recent graduate Patrick Kiley, first figure out how to stabilize spinach proteins—which, like all plants, produce energy when exposed to light—so they can survive without water and salt. Then, they devise a way to attach them to a piece of glass coated with a thin layer of gold. The resulting spinach-based solar cell, the world’s first solid-state photosynthetic solar cell, has the potential to power laptops and cell phones with sunlight.

2005 MIT physicists, led by Nobel laureate Wolfgang Ketterle, create a new type of matter, a gas of atoms that shows high-temperature superfluidity.

2005 Vladimir Bulovic and Tim Swager develop lasing sensors based on a semiconducting polymer that is able to detect the presence of TNT vapor subparts per billion concentrations.

2006 MIT launches the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) to address world energy problems. Led by Ernest J. Moniz and Robert C. Armstrong, MITEI coordinates energy research, education, campus energy management, and outreach activities across the Institute.

2007 Rudolf Jaenisch, of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, conducts the first proof-of-principle experiment of the therapeutic potential of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), using iPS cells reprogrammed from mouse skin cells to cure a mouse model of human sickle-cell anemia. Jaenisch would then use a similar approach to treat a model of Parkinson’s disease in rats.

2007 Marin Soljačić and his colleagues develop a new form of wireless power transmission they call WITricity. It is based on a strongly coupled magnetic resonance and can be used to transfer power over distances of a few meters with high efficiency. The technique could be used commercially to wirelessly power laptops, cell phones, and other devices.

2007 David H. Koch ’62, SM ’63 gives MIT $100 million to create the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. The Koch Institute opens in 2011. It brings together molecular geneticists, cell biologists, and engineers in a unique multi-disciplinary approach to cancer research.

2007 Tim Jamison discovers that cascades of epoxide-opening reactions that were long thought to be impossible can very rapidly assemble the Red Tide marine toxins when they are induced by water. Such processes may be emulating how these toxins are made in nature and may lead to a better understanding of what causes devastating Red Tide phenomena. These methods also open up an environmentally green synthesis of new classes of complex highly biologically active compounds.

2007 MIT mathematicians form part of a group of 18 mathematicians from the U.S. and Europe that maps one of the most complicated structures ever studied: the exceptional Lie group E8. The “answer” to the calculation, if written, would cover an area the size of Manhattan. The resulting atlas has applications in the fields of string theory and geometry.

2008 Mriganka Sur’s laboratory discovers that astrocytes, star-shaped cells in the brain that are as numerous as neurons, form the basis for functioning brain imaging. Using ultra high-resolution imaging in the intact brain, they demonstrate that astrocytes regulate blood flow to active brain regions by linking neurons to brain capillaries.

2008 A team led by Marc A. Baldo designs a solar concentrator that focuses light at the edges of a solar power cell. The technology can increase the efficiency of solar panels by up to 50 percent, substantially reducing the cost of generating solar electricity.

2008 Daniel Nocera creates a chemical catalyst that hurdles one of the obstacles to widespread use of solar power—the difficulty of storing energy from the sun. The ca­talyst, which is cheap and easy to make, uses the energy from sunlight to separate the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in water. The hydrogen can then be burned, or used to power an electric fuel cell.

2009 A team of MIT researchers led by Angela Belcher reports that it is able to genetically engineer viruses to produce both the positively and negatively charged ends of a lithium-ion battery. The battery has the same energy capacity as those being considered for use in hybrid cars, but is produced using a cheaper, less environmentally hazardous process. MIT President Susan Hockfield presents a prototype battery to President Barack Obama at a press briefing at the White House.

2009 Researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory show for the first time that multiple interacting genetic risk factors may influence the severity of autism symptoms. The finding could lead to therapies and diagnostic tools that target the interacting genes.

2009 Gerbrand Ceder and graduate student Byoungwoo Kang develop a new way to manufacture the material used in lithium ion batteries that allows ultrafast charging and discharging. The new method creates a surface structure that allows lithium ions to move rapidly around the outside of the battery. Batteries built using the new method could take seconds, rather than the now standard hours, to charge.

2009 As neuroscience progresses rapidly toward an understanding of basic mechanisms of neural and synapse function, MIT neuroscientists are discovering the mechanisms underlying brain disorders and diseases. Li-Huei Tsai’s laboratory describes mechanisms that underlie Alzheimer’s disease and propose that inhibition of histone deacetylases is therapeutic for degenerative disorders of learning and memory. Her laboratory also discovers the mechanisms of action of the gene Disrupted-in-Schizophrenia 1 and demonstrates why drugs such as lithium are effective in certain instances of schizophrenia. This research opens up pathways to discovering novel classes of drugs for devastating neuropsychiatric conditions.

2010 A new approach to desalination is being developed by researchers at MIT and in Korea that could lead to small, portable desalination units that could be powered by solar cells or batteries and could deliver enough fresh water to supply the needs of a family or small village. As an added bonus, the system would remove many contaminants, viruses, and bacteria at the same time.

2010 Yang Shao-Horn, with some of her students, and visiting professor Hubert Gasteiger, reports that lithium-oxygen (also known as lithium-air) batteries with electrodes with either gold or platinum as a catalyst have a higher efficiency than simple carbon electrodes. Lithium-air batteries are lighter than the conventional lithium-ion batteries.

2010 A team at Media Lab, including Ramesh Raskar, visiting professor Manuel Oliveira, student Vitor Pamplona, and postdoctoral research associate Ankit Mohan, create a new system to determine a prescription for eyeglasses. In its simplest form, the test can be carried out using a small, plastic device clipped onto the front of a cellphone’s screen.

2010 MIT releases The Future of Natural Gas report. The two-year study, managed by the MIT Energy Initiative, examines the scale of U.S. natural gas reserves and the potential of this fuel to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. While the report emphasizes the great potential for natural gas as a transitional fuel to help curb greenhouse gases and dependence on oil, it also stresses that it is important as a matter of national policy not to favor any one fuel or energy source in a way that puts others at a disadvantage.

2010 Michael Strano and his team of graduate students and researchers create a set of self-assembling molecules that can turn sunlight into electricity; the molecules can be repeatedly broken down and reassembled quickly just by adding or removing an additional solution.

2011 Elazer Edelman, HST graduate student Joseph Franses, and former MIT postdoctoral fellows Aaron Baker and Vipul Chitalia show that cells lining blood vessels secrete molecules that suppress tumor growth and prevent cancer cells from invading other tissues, a finding that could lead to a new cancer treatment.

2011 The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)—an instrument designed to use the unique environment of space to search for antimatter and dark matter and to measure cosmic rays—is delivered to the International Space Station. The AMS experiment, led by Samuel C. C. Ting, is designed to study high-energy particles; such study could lead to new theories about the formation and evolution of the universe.

2011 A team, including Karen Gleason, Vladimir Bulović, and graduate student Miles Barr, develops materials that make it possible to produce photovoltaic cells on paper or fabric, nearly as simply as printing a document. The technique represents a major departure from the systems typically used to create solar cells, which require exposing the substrates to potentially damaging conditions, either in the form of liquids or high temperatures.

2011 By combining a physical interface with computer-vision algorithms, researchers in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences create a simple, portable imaging system that can achieve resolutions previously possible only with large and expensive lab equipment. The device could allow manufacturers to inspect products too large to fit under a microscope and could also have applications in medicine, forensics, and biometrics. Moreover, because the design uses multiple cameras, it can produce 3-D models of an object, which can be manipulated on a computer screen for examination from multiple angles.

2011 Researchers, led by Daniel Nocera, have produced an “artificial leaf”—a silicon solar cell with different catalytic materials bonded onto its two sides. The artificial leaf can turn the energy of sunlight directly into a chemical fuel that can be stored and used later as an energy source.

2011 Lincoln Laboratory researchers, led by technical staff member Gregory Charvat, build a new radar technology system that can see through walls up to 60 feet away, creating an instantaneous picture of the activity on the other side. The system also creates a real-time video of movement behind the wall at the rate of 10.8 frames per second.

2012 NASA’s Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) twin spacecraft successfully enters lunar orbit. By precisely measuring changes in distance between the twin orbiting spacecraft, scientists will construct a detailed gravitational model of the moon that will be used to answer fundamental questions about the moon’s evolution and its internal composition. GRAIL’s principal investigator is Maria Zuber.

2012 Researchers, including Jeffrey Grossman, discover that building cubes or towers of solar cells—to extend the cells upward in three-dimensional configurations—generates two to 20 times the power produced by fixed flat panels with the same base area.

2012 Researchers, led by Ian Hunter, have engineered a device that delivers a tiny, high-pressure jet of medicine through the skin without the use of a hypodermic needle. The device can be programmed to deliver a range of doses to various depths—an improvement over similar jet-injection systems that are now commercially available.

2012 A clinical trial of an Alzheimer’s disease treatment developed at MIT finds that a nutrient cocktail can improve memory in patients with early Alzheimer’s. Richard Wurtman invented the supplement mixture, known as Souvenaid, which appears to stimulate growth of new synapses.

2012 Researchers, including Young Lee and PhD graduate Tianheng Han, have followed up on earlier theoretical predictions and demonstrated experimentally the existence of a fundamentally new magnetic state called a quantum spin liquid (QSL), adding to the two previously known states of magnetism. The QSL is a solid crystal, but its magnetic state is described as liquid: Unlike the other two kinds of magnetism, the magnetic orientations of the individual particles within it fluctuate constantly, resembling the constant motion of molecules within a true liquid.

2013 A new steelmaking process developed by MIT researchers, Donald Sadoway, Antoine Allanore, and former postdoc Lan Yin, produces no emissions other than pure oxygen and carries nice side benefits: The resulting steel should be of higher purity, and eventually, once the process is scaled up, cheaper.