The Biomolecular Tales of Our Ancestors: Alisa Kazarina at TEDxRiga (Transcript)

Alisa Kazarina – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Imagine a parallel universe that coexists in the same place as our universe, in the same space, at the same time. This universe is overcrowded with life forms. It is invisible and intangible like the finest layer of reality, which we cannot notice.

But it is there, and it maintains the functionality of our everyday world. Without it, we just wouldn’t exist.

Now, would you be surprised if I told you that actually everything I said before is true? Because I’m about to tell you this. I’m talking about the world of microbes — a separate world, yet so deeply connected to us. And the story of this connection expands far away into the past.

But thanks to modern science, we are now able to read this story like a history book. Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present biomolecular archeology, the science behind this history book.

And I am here to share with you what fascinating things we can try to manage with this powerful modern science. But let’s start with the term itself: biomolecular archeology.

It’s not even easy to pronounce, not to mention to try to understand the essence of this phrase. There might not be a problem with the archeology part, right? We’ve all seen it in movies, we know what it is about, but what is “biomolecular” anyway?

The first thing that comes to mind: it is something about biology and molecules. And this is actually correct. A biological molecule, or a biomolecule, is any molecule that is present in a living organism.

Now, there are all sorts of molecules in your body, but undoubtedly, the most informative one is DNA. So, let’s bring it back together.

Biomolecular archeology enables us to study the DNA recovered from archeological samples. And not only native human DNA, which, of course, all by itself gives lots of study perspectives, but also the DNA of microbes that lived side by side with that human. This science is relatively young.

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About 10 years ago, a massive breakthrough happened in genomic research technology. A method appeared which is called NGS, next generation sequencing, and this method significantly cuts time and costs of any genomic research.

For example, have you ever heard about the Human Genome Project? It was quite a popular topic for science fiction some time ago. This project launched in 1990 with the goal to decrypt all genomic information in a human organism.

At that time, with the technology of the time, it took 10 years and $3 billion to reach the goals of this project. With NGS, all of that can be done in just one day at the cost of $15,000.

On the fertile soil of next generation sequencing arose biomolecular archeology because there is a great lot of genomic information to be analyzed and it just wouldn’t be possible to manage such research with olden day technology.

Now we are able to manage such research OK, “But why?” you could ask me. “What benefits can we get out of this information? What can we use it for?” The answer appears to be quite wide.

Consider human health as a complex and dynamic system. Apart from genetically determined factors that are stored in our DNA, our health is severely influenced by many other factors, like our lifestyle, our diet, and our fellow microbes. One hundred trillion cells, one and 14 zeros, that’s the approximate number of microorganisms in your body, ten times greater than the number of your own cells.

Your microbial baggage occupies almost 2% of your body weight, that’s about one and a half kilograms, approximately the weight of your liver, or your brain. And all these are microbes. Just think about it for a second!

Human microbiome, that’s the modern term for all microbial communities inhabiting your body, has earned a close attention over the last decade. It seems that we are only beginning to discover the mysterious role that is given to microbes in the performance of our health.

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In 2007, the National Institutes of Health of the U.S. launched the Human Microbiome Project to finally study its relation to our health conditions. And since then, it has only become clearer that our notion about our fellow microbes is inexcusably poor.

Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, even compared the researchers involved in the project with the 15th century explorers discovering the outline of a new continent.

It is now being suggested that a range of modern, widespread diseases, starting from obesity, Crohn’s disease, other gastrointestinal problems to all sorts of allergies, autoimmune diseases, or maybe even cancer, may appear to be consequences of microbiome changes.

But where do these changes come from? When did they first appear? What was the triggering factor? These are the questions we are trying to find answers to at the moment.

This topic always triggers a memory of my first conscious experience with the microbial world around. My mother, like any attentive parent, tried her best to warn me against the invisible dangers of the world. And she told me a story that every time I do not wash hands before eating something, I become a reason of global microbial migration.

An uncountable number of microbial families come together, pack their suitcases, their TVs, their favorite toys, and leave their houses forever to move to a new area which is thought to be my body.

Now, I was a child with a very vivid imagination, and this story influenced me so much that I was obsessed with handwashing for a really long time. It actually took me years to overcome the thought that I’m doing something wrong when I initiate this microbial migration, and to understand finally that they are actually willing to come, they’ve got friends there waiting for them.

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