Nathan Wolfe: Are Microbes The Next Frontier? Biologist Nathan Wolfe says the unseeable world of microbes is fertile ground for new discoveries.
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Are Microbes The Next Frontier?

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Are Microbes The Next Frontier?

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - from curiosity to discovery. Stories about the source of curiosity and how it drives the things we do. So what drives your curiosity?

NATHAN WOLFE: I think for me, what I became, just, you know, addicted to early on was finding new things. And it's sort of - in a very sort of basic way. It's a little bit like you're pinging nature. You know, science is this amazing thing where you can basically ask questions of nature and nature will provide some sort of answer to you. And there's something so incredible about being able to do that.

RAZ: This is Nathan Wolfe. He's a microbiologist and something of an explorer.

WOLFE: The reality is there's so much unexplored that's all around us, if we think about life in a slightly different way.

RAZ: And he says to make those new discoveries, we don't have to look too far. Here's Nathan Wolfe on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOLFE: 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 give 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?

RAZ: Nathan says of course there is. And the next frontier - microbes. Now, it sounds a little strange, I know. But there's actually so little we know about microbes, even the ones in our very own bodies.

WOLFE: If you really just sort of think about the diversity of microbes that are on your hand, or on the outside of your coffee cup, there's likely to be unexplored, unknown diversity just sitting right there in that environment. And so I think one of the things that excites me as a scientist about that world is, sort of how much is left to discover.

RAZ: You can experience like 6 billion moon landings every day, just on a coffee cup.

WOLFE: (Laughter). That's exactly right, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOLFE: 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.

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 sort of skim the surface and look at individual genomes from a particular species, but to look at entire metagenomes - the communities of teeming microorganisms in and 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.

RAZ: We're just at the very beginning of understanding this whole new world of microbes.

WOLFE: Absolutely. This is one of the most exciting things about being a microbiologist right now, is that the tools that we have for exploration sort of are, sort of the equivalent of telescopes and GPS systems that we have for navigating this unseen world, have exploded really even over the last 5 to 10 years. We could take a specimen, like, let's say we were to take a swab from your nose, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOLFE: The first thing that 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 1 to 2% of this information is dark matter; can't be classified, can't be typed or matched with anything we've seen before.

RAZ: All right. So let me make sure I have this right. You're saying that within our own DNA, there are these tiny bits of genetic information that no scientist has ever been able to identify, like, they don't know what it is and - that's crazy.

WOLFE: Yes and you know, people think about the data revolution. Everyone's very interested in how much data is out there and how much data does Facebook have? And it seems like a tremendous amount. I'll tell you right now that most of the information content of our planet is locked up in microbes in the DNA and RNA of microorganisms. And we're only just starting to sort uncover what that means.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOLFE: At first, we thought that perhaps this was artifact, right? These deep sequencing tools are relatively new. But as they've 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 these instances of biological dark matter are really only in their infancy, there's a very, very exciting possibility that exists - that buried in this life are signatures, in this genetic information, are signatures as of yet unidentified life 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.

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. There was a time not very long ago, when the discovery of unknown organisms was something that held incredible awe for us. It had potential to really change the way that we saw ourselves and thought about ourselves. Many people, I think on our planet right now, despair; they think we've reached a point where we've discovered most of the things. I'm going to tell you right now - please don't despair. This is honestly the most exciting period ever for the study of unknown life forms on our planet. The dominant things that exist here, we know almost nothing about and yet, finally we have the tools which will allow us to actually explore that world and understand them.

Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Nathan Wolfe. He's a microbiologist who also looks for the source of viruses. His amazing TED Talk is at ted.npr.org.

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