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  • Translator: Leslie Gauthier Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • For the past few years,

  • I've been spending my summers in the marine biological laboratory

  • in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

  • And there, what I've been doing is essentially renting a boat.

  • What I would like to do is ask you

  • to come on a boat ride with me tonight.

  • So, we ride off from Eel Pond into Vineyard Sound,

  • right off the coast of Martha's Vineyard,

  • equipped with a drone to identify potential spots

  • from which to peer into the Atlantic.

  • Earlier, I was going to say into the depths of the Atlantic,

  • but we don't have to go too deep to reach the unknown.

  • Here, barely two miles away

  • from what is arguably the greatest marine biology lab in the world,

  • we lower a simple plankton net into the water

  • and bring up to the surface

  • things that humanity rarely pays any attention to,

  • and oftentimes has never seen before.

  • Here's one of the organisms that we caught in our net.

  • This is a jellyfish.

  • But look closely,

  • and living inside of this animal is another organism

  • that is very likely entirely new to science.

  • A complete new species.

  • Or how about this other transparent beauty

  • with a beating heart,

  • asexually growing on top of its head,

  • progeny that will move on to reproduce sexually.

  • Let me say that again:

  • this animal is growing asexually on top of its head,

  • progeny that is going to reproduce sexually in the next generation.

  • A weird jellyfish?

  • Not quite.

  • This is an ascidian.

  • This is a group of animals

  • that now we know we share extensive genomic ancestry with,

  • and it is perhaps the closest invertebrate species to our own.

  • Meet your cousin,

  • Thalia democratica.

  • (Laughter)

  • I'm pretty sure you didn't save a spot at your last family reunion

  • for Thalia,

  • but let me tell you,

  • these animals are profoundly related to us

  • in ways that we're just beginning to understand.

  • So, next time you hear anybody derisively telling you

  • that this type of research is a simple fishing expedition,

  • I hope that you'll remember the trip that we just took.

  • Today, many of the biological sciences only see value

  • in studying deeper what we already know --

  • in mapping already-discovered continents.

  • But some of us are much more interested in the unknown.

  • We want to discover completely new continents,

  • and gaze at magnificent vistas of ignorance.

  • We crave the experience of being completely baffled

  • by something we've never seen before.

  • And yes, I agree

  • there's a lot of little ego satisfaction in being able to say,

  • "Hey, I was the first one to discover that."

  • But this is not a self-aggrandizing enterprise,

  • because in this type of discovery research,

  • if you don't feel like a complete idiot most of the time,

  • you're just not sciencing hard enough.

  • (Laughter)

  • So every summer I bring onto the deck of this little boat of ours

  • more and more things that we know very little about.

  • I would like tonight to tell you a story about life

  • that rarely gets told in an environment like this.

  • From the vantage point of our 21st-century biological laboratories,

  • we have begun to illuminate many mysteries of life with knowledge.

  • We sense that after centuries of scientific research,

  • we're beginning to make significant inroads

  • into understanding some of the most fundamental principles of life.

  • Our collective optimism is reflected by the growth of biotechnology

  • across the globe,

  • striving to utilize scientific knowledge to cure human diseases.

  • Things like cancer, aging, degenerative diseases;

  • these are but some of the undesirables we wish to tame.

  • I often wonder:

  • Why is it that we are having so much trouble

  • trying to solve the problem of cancer?

  • Is it that we're trying to solve the problem of cancer,

  • and not trying to understand life?

  • Life on this planet shares a common origin,

  • and I can summarize 3.5 billion years of the history of life on this planet

  • in a single slide.

  • What you see here are representatives of all known species in our planet.

  • In this immensity of life and biodiversity,

  • we occupy a rather unremarkable position.

  • (Laughter)

  • Homo sapiens.

  • The last of our kind.

  • And though I don't really want to disparage at all

  • the accomplishments of our species,

  • as much as we wish it to be so and often pretend that it is,

  • we are not the measure of all things.

  • We are, however, the measurers of many things.

  • We relentlessly quantify, analyze and compare,

  • and some of this is absolutely invaluable and indeed necessary.

  • But this emphasis today on forcing biological research to specialize

  • and to produce practical outcomes

  • is actually restricting our ability to interrogate life

  • to unacceptably narrow confines and unsatisfying depths.

  • We are measuring an astonishingly narrow sliver of life,

  • and hoping that those numbers will save all of our lives.

  • How narrow do you ask?

  • Well, let me give you a number.

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently estimated

  • that about 95 percent of our oceans remain unexplored.

  • Now let that sink in for a second.

  • 95 percent of our oceans remain unexplored.

  • I think it's very safe to say

  • that we don't even know how much about life we do not know.

  • So, it's not surprising that every week in my field

  • we begin to see the addition of more and more new species

  • to this amazing tree of life.

  • This one for example --

  • discovered earlier this summer,

  • new to science,

  • and now occupying its lonely branch in our family tree.

  • What is even more tragic

  • is that we know about a bunch of other species of animals out there,

  • but their biology remains sorely under-studied.

  • I'm sure some of you have heard about the fact

  • that a starfish can actually regenerate its arm after it's lost.

  • But some of you might not know

  • that the arm itself can actually regenerate a complete starfish.

  • And there are animals out there that do truly astounding things.

  • I'm almost willing to bet

  • that many of you have never heard of the flatworm, Schmidtea mediterranea.

  • This little guy right here

  • does things that essentially just blow my mind.

  • You can grab one of these animals and cut it into 18 different fragments,

  • and each and every one of those fragments will go on to regenerate

  • a complete animal

  • in under two weeks.

  • 18 heads, 18 bodies, 18 mysteries.

  • For the past decade and a half or so,

  • I've been trying to figure out how these little dudes do what they do,

  • and how they pull this magic trick off.

  • But like all good magicians,

  • they're not really releasing their secrets readily to me.

  • (Laughter)

  • So here we are,

  • after 20 years of essentially studying these animals,

  • genome mapping, chin scratching,

  • and thousands of amputations and thousands of regenerations,

  • we still don't fully understand how these animals do what they do.

  • Each planarian an ocean unto itself,

  • full of unknowns.

  • One of the common characteristics

  • of all of these animals I've been talking to you about

  • is that they did not appear to have received the memo

  • that they need to behave according to the rules

  • that we have derived from a handful of randomly selected animals

  • that currently populate the vast majority

  • of biomedical laboratories across the world.

  • Meet our Nobel Prize winners.

  • Seven species, essentially,

  • that have produced for us the brunt of our understanding

  • of biological behavior today.

  • This little guy right here --

  • three Nobel Prizes in 12 years.

  • And yet, after all the attention they have garnered,

  • and all the knowledge they have generated,

  • as well as the lion's share of the funding,

  • here we are standing [before] the same litany of intractable problems

  • and many new challenges.

  • And that's because, unfortunately,

  • these seven animals essentially correspond

  • to 0.0009 percent of all of the species that inhabit the planet.

  • So I'm beginning to suspect

  • that our specialization is beginning to impede our progress at best,

  • and at worst, is leading us astray.

  • That's because life on this planet and its history

  • is the history of rule breakers.

  • Life started on the face of this planet as single-cell organisms,

  • swimming for millions of years in the ocean,

  • until one of those creatures decided,

  • "I'm going to do things differently today;

  • today I would like to invent something called multicellularity,

  • and I'm going to do this."

  • And I'm sure it wasn't a popular decision at the time --

  • (Laughter)

  • but somehow, it managed to do it.

  • And then, multicellular organisms began to populate

  • all these ancestral oceans,

  • and they thrived.

  • And we have them here today.

  • Land masses began to emerge from the surface of the oceans,

  • and another creature thought,

  • "Hey, that looks like a really nice piece of real estate.

  • I'd like to move there."

  • "Are you crazy?

  • You're going to desiccate out there. Nothing can live out of water."

  • But life found a way,

  • and there are organisms now that live on land.

  • Once on land, they may have looked up into the sky

  • and said, "It would be nice to go to the clouds,

  • I'm going to fly."

  • "You can't break the law of gravity, there's no way you can fly."

  • And yet, nature has invented --

  • multiple and independent times --

  • ways to fly.

  • I love to study these animals that break the rules,

  • because every time they break a rule, they invent something new

  • that made it possible for us to be able to be here today.

  • These animals did not get the memo.

  • They break the rules.

  • So if we're going to study animals that break the rules,

  • shouldn't how we study them also break the rules?

  • I think we need to renew our spirit of exploration.

  • Rather than bring nature into our laboratories

  • and interrogate it there,

  • we need to bring our science

  • into the majestic laboratory that is nature,

  • and there, with our modern technological armamentarium,

  • interrogate every new form of life we find,

  • and any new biological attribute that we may find.

  • We actually need to bring all of our intelligence

  • to becoming stupid again --

  • clueless [before] the immensity of the unknown.

  • Because after all,

  • science is not really about knowledge.

  • Science is about ignorance.

  • That's what we do.

  • Once, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote,

  • "If you want to build a ship,

  • don't drum up people to collect wood

  • and don't assign them tasks and work,

  • but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea ..."

  • As a scientist and a teacher,

  • I like to paraphrase this to read

  • that we scientists need to teach our students

  • to long for the endless immensity of the sea

  • that is our ignorance.

  • We Homo sapiens are the only species we know of

  • that is driven to scientific inquiry.

  • We, like all other species on this planet,

  • are inextricably woven into the history of life on this planet.

  • And I think I'm a little wrong when I say that life is a mystery,

  • because I think that life is actually an open secret

  • that has been beckoning our species for millennia to understand it.

  • So I ask you:

  • Aren't we the best chance that life has to know itself?

  • And if so,

  • what the heck are we waiting for?

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

Translator: Leslie Gauthier Reviewer: Camille Martínez

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    Zenn posted on 2017/08/16