The Scientist 2021 Top 10 Innovations

With the COVID-19 pandemic dragging toward a most unwelcome third year, it’s not surprising that the biomedical community has continued to focus on diagnosing and treating the disease. The list of this year’s Top 10 Innovations winners reflects these shared goals with a couple of products that can help researchers better understand the biological realities of SARS-CoV-2 infections, interrogating cells neighboring those infected with the virus, for example, and the immune system’s reaction to it over time.

But 2021’s innovation landscape also includes laboratory and clinical products that provide a more expansive view on biology. The winners of this year’s competition include an implantable miniscope that can track activity in the brains of freely moving organisms; a microfluidic device that aims to recapitulate whole-organism physiology; and a few products that build on the emerging trend toward characterizing individual cells, with the added components of spatial information or multi-omics.


One of two spatial genomics tools in this year’s Top 10, Vizgen’s MERSCOPETM is the only single-cell spatial genomics instrument currently available for purchase. Designed to conduct and analyze multiplex error resistant fluorescence in situ hybridization (MERFISH) experiments, the platform detects RNA transcripts from hundreds of genes across intact tissue and returns imaging and expression data at subcellular resolution.

The product was developed as “a new sort of research tool that gives people this unprecedented view into biological systems,” says Vizgen cofounder and director of technology and partnerships George Emanuel. “You know exactly where each transcript is with 100-nanometer accuracy.”

The Salk Institute’s Pallav Kosuri, who is using MERSCOPETM for detailed cardiac tissue imaging, says it’s useful to work directly with the instrument, adding that while sample prep is laborious, the analysis is fully automated by MERSCOPETM. “Everything has worked really smoothly,” says Kosuri, who did his postdoc in the Harvard University lab where the technology was developed but was not involved in the work. When he’s needed technical support, “the company has been really good at dedicating time and effort to troubleshoot with us.”