The Age of Genetic Wonder: Juan Enriquez (Full Transcript)

Juan Enriquez – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

So let me start with Roy Amara.

Roy’s argument is that most new technologies tend to be overestimated in their impact to begin with, and then they get underestimated in the long term because we get used to them.

These really are days of miracle and wonder. You remember that wonderful song by Paul Simon? There were two lines in it.

So what was it that was considered miraculous back then?

Slowing down things — slow motion — and the long-distance call. Because, of course, you used to get interrupted by operators who’d tell you, “Long distance calling. Do you want to hang up?” And now we think nothing of calling all over the world.

Well, something similar may be happening with reading and programming life.

But before I unpack that, let’s just talk about telescopes. Telescopes were overestimated originally in their impact. This is one of Galileo’s early models. People thought it was just going to ruin all religion.

So we’re not paying that much attention to telescopes. But, of course, telescopes launched 10 years ago, as you just heard, could take this Volkswagen, fly it to the moon, and you could see the lights on that Volkswagen light up on the moon.

And that’s the kind of resolution power that allowed you to see little specks of dust floating around distant suns. Imagine for a second that this was a sun a billion light years away, and you had a little speck of dust that came in front of it. That’s what detecting an exoplanet is like.

And the cool thing is, the telescopes that are now being launched would allow you to see a single candle lit on the moon. And if you separated it by one plate, you could see two candles separately at that distance. And that’s the kind of resolution that you need to begin to image that little speck of dust as it comes around the sun and see if it has a blue-green signature.

And if it does have a blue-green signature, it means that life is common in the universe. The first time you ever see a blue-green signature on a distant planet, it means there’s photosynthesis there, there’s water there, and the chances that you saw the only other planet with photosynthesis are about zero.

And that’s a calendar-changing event. There’s a before and after we were alone in the universe: forget about the discovery of whatever continent. So as you’re thinking about this, we’re now beginning to be able to image most of the universe. And that is a time of miracle and wonder. And we kind of take that for granted.

Something similar is happening in life. So we’re hearing about life in these little bits and pieces. We hear about CRISPR, and we hear about this technology, and we hear about this technology.

But the bottom line on life is that life turns out to be code. And life as code is a really important concept because it means, just in the same way as you can write a sentence in English or in French or Chinese, just in the same way as you can copy a sentence, just in the same way as you can edit a sentence, just in the same way as you can print a sentence, you’re beginning to be able to do that with life.

It means that we’re beginning to learn how to read this language. And this, of course, is the language that is used by this orange. So how does this orange execute code? It doesn’t do it in ones and zeroes like a computer does. It sits on a tree, and one day it does: plop! And that means: execute AATCAAG: make me a little root.

TCGACC: make me a little stem. GAC: make me some leaves. AGC: make me some flowers. And then GCAA: make me some more oranges. If I edit a sentence in English on a word processor, then what happens is you can go from this word to that word.

If I edit something in this orange and put in GCAAC, using CRISPR or something else that you’ve heard of, then this orange becomes a lemon, or it becomes a grapefruit, or it becomes a tangerine.

And if I edit one in a thousand letters, you become the person sitting next to you today. Be more careful where you sit. What’s happening on this stuff is it was really expensive to begin with. It was like long-distance calls.

But the cost of this is dropping 50% faster than Moore’s law. The first $200 full genome was announced yesterday by Veritas. And so as you’re looking at these systems, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, and then it does. So let me just give you the map view of this stuff.

This is a big discovery. There’s 23 chromosomes. Cool!

Let’s now start using a telescope version, but instead of using a telescope, let’s use a microscope to zoom in on the inferior of those chromosomes, which is the Y chromosome. It’s a third the size of the X. It’s recessive and mutant.

But hey, just a male. And as you’re looking at this stuff, here’s kind of a country view at a 400 base pair resolution level, and then you zoom in to 550, and then you zoom in to 850, and you can begin to identify more and more genes as you zoom in.

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