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  • Translator: Timothy Covell Reviewer: Morton Bast

  • Recently I visited Beloit, Wisconsin.

  • And I was there to honor a great 20th century explorer,

  • Roy Chapman Andrews.

  • During his time at the American Museum of Natural History,

  • Andrews led a range of expeditions to uncharted regions,

  • like here in the Gobi Desert.

  • He was quite a figure.

  • He was later, it's said, the basis of the Indiana Jones character.

  • And when I was in Beloit, Wisconsin,

  • I gave a public lecture to a group of middle school students.

  • And I'm here to tell you,

  • if there's anything more intimidating than talking here at TED,

  • it'll be trying to hold the attention

  • of a group of a thousand 12-year-olds for a 45-minute lecture.

  • Don't try that one.

  • At the end of the lecture they asked a number of questions,

  • but there was one that's really stuck with me since then.

  • There was a young girl who stood up,

  • and she asked the question:

  • "Where should we explore?"

  • I think there's a sense that many of us have

  • that the great age of exploration on Earth is over,

  • that for the next generation

  • they're going to have to go to outer space or the deepest oceans

  • in order to find something significant to explore.

  • But is that really the case?

  • Is there really nowhere significant for us to explore

  • left here on Earth?

  • It sort of made me think back

  • to one of my favorite explorers in the history of biology.

  • This is an explorer of the unseen world, Martinus Beijerinck.

  • So Beijerinck set out to discover the cause

  • of tobacco mosaic disease.

  • What he did is he took the infected juice from tobacco plants

  • and he would filter it through smaller and smaller filters.

  • And he reached the point

  • where he felt that there must be something out there

  • that was smaller than the smallest forms of life that were ever known --

  • bacteria, at the time.

  • He came up with a name for his mystery agent.

  • He called it the virus --

  • Latin for "poison."

  • And in uncovering viruses,

  • Beijerinck really opened this entirely new world for us.

  • We now know that viruses make up the majority

  • of the genetic information on our planet,

  • more than the genetic information

  • of all other forms of life combined.

  • And obviously there's been tremendous practical applications

  • associated with this world --

  • things like the eradication of smallpox,

  • the advent of a vaccine against cervical cancer,

  • which we now know is mostly caused by human papillomavirus.

  • And Beijerinck's discovery,

  • this was not something that occurred 500 years ago.

  • It was a little over 100 years ago

  • that Beijerinck discovered viruses.

  • So basically we had automobiles,

  • but we were unaware of the forms of life

  • that make up most of the genetic information on our planet.

  • We now have these amazing tools

  • to allow us to explore the unseen world --

  • things like deep sequencing,

  • which allow us to do much more than just skim the surface

  • and look at individual genomes from a particular species,

  • but to look at entire metagenomes,

  • the communities of teeming microorganisms in, on and around us

  • and to document all of the genetic information in these species.

  • We can apply these techniques

  • to things from soil to skin and everything in between.

  • In my organization we now do this on a regular basis

  • to identify the causes of outbreaks

  • that are unclear exactly what causes them.

  • And just to give you a sense of how this works,

  • imagine that we took a nasal swab from every single one of you.

  • And this is something we commonly do

  • to look for respiratory viruses like influenza.

  • The first thing we would see

  • is a tremendous amount of genetic information.

  • And if we started looking into that genetic information,

  • we'd see a number of usual suspects out there --

  • of course, a lot of human genetic information,

  • but also bacterial and viral information,

  • mostly from things that are completely harmless within your nose.

  • But we'd also see something very, very surprising.

  • As we started to look at this information,

  • we would see that about 20 percent of the genetic information in your nose

  • doesn't match anything that we've ever seen before --

  • no plant, animal, fungus, virus or bacteria.

  • Basically we have no clue what this is.

  • And for the small group of us who actually study this kind of data,

  • a few of us have actually begun to call this information

  • biological dark matter.

  • We know it's not anything that we've seen before;

  • it's sort of the equivalent of an uncharted continent

  • right within our own genetic information.

  • And there's a lot of it.

  • If you think 20 percent of genetic information in your nose is a lot

  • of biological dark matter,

  • if we looked at your gut,

  • up to 40 or 50 percent of that information is biological dark matter.

  • And even in the relatively sterile blood,

  • around one to two percent of this information is dark matter --

  • can't be classified, can't be typed or matched with anything we've seen before.

  • At first we thought that perhaps this was artifact.

  • These deep sequencing tools are relatively new.

  • But as they become more and more accurate,

  • we've determined that this information is a form of life,

  • or at least some of it is a form of life.

  • And while the hypotheses for explaining the existence of biological dark matter

  • are really only in their infancy,

  • there's a very, very exciting possibility that exists:

  • that buried in this life, in this genetic information,

  • are signatures of as of yet unidentified life.

  • That as we explore these strings of A's, T's, C's and G's,

  • we may uncover a completely new class of life

  • that, like Beijerinck, will fundamentally change

  • the way that we think about the nature of biology.

  • That perhaps will allow us to identify the cause of a cancer that afflicts us

  • or identify the source of an outbreak that we aren't familiar with

  • or perhaps create a new tool in molecular biology.

  • I'm pleased to announce that,

  • along with colleagues at Stanford and Caltech and UCSF,

  • we're currently starting an initiative

  • to explore biological dark matter for the existence of new forms of life.

  • A little over a hundred years ago,

  • people were unaware of viruses,

  • the forms of life that make up most of the genetic information on our planet.

  • A hundred years from now, people may marvel

  • that we were perhaps completely unaware of a new class of life

  • that literally was right under our noses.

  • It's true, we may have charted all the continents on the planet

  • and we may have discovered all the mammals that are out there,

  • but that doesn't mean that there's nothing left to explore on Earth.

  • Beijerinck and his kind

  • provide an important lesson for the next generation of explorers --

  • people like that young girl from Beloit, Wisconsin.

  • And I think if we phrase that lesson, it's something like this:

  • Don't assume that what we currently think is out there is the full story.

  • Go after the dark matter in whatever field you choose to explore.

  • There are unknowns all around us

  • and they're just waiting to be discovered.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

Translator: Timothy Covell Reviewer: Morton Bast

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