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To solve old problems, study new species

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    For the past few years,
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    I've been spending my summers
    in the marine biological laboratory
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    in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
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    And there, what I've been doing
    is essentially renting a boat.
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    What I would like to do is ask you
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    to come on a boat ride with me tonight.
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    So, we ride off from Eel Pond
    into Vineyard Sound,
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    right off the coast of Martha's Vineyard,
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    equipped with a drone
    to identify potential spots
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    from which to peer into the Atlantic.
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    Earlier, I was going to say
    into the depths of the Atlantic,
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    but we don't have to go too deep
    to reach the unknown.
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    Here, barely two miles away
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    from what is arguably the greatest
    marine biology lab in the world,
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    we lower a simple
    plankton net into the water
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    and bring up to the surface
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    things that humanity rarely
    pays any attention to,
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    and oftentimes has never seen before.
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    Here's one of the organisms
    that we caught in our net.
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    This is a jellyfish.
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    But look closely,
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    and living inside of this animal
    is another organism
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    that is very likely
    entirely new to science.
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    A complete new species.
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    Or how about this other transparent beauty
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    with a beating heart,
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    asexually growing on top of its head,
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    progeny that will move on
    to reproduce sexually.
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    Let me say that again:
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    this animal is growing asexually
    on top of its head,
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    progeny that is going to reproduce
    sexually in the next generation.
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    A weird jellyfish?
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    Not quite.
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    This is an ascidian.
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    This is a group of animals
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    that now we know we share
    extensive genomic ancestry with,
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    and it is perhaps the closest
    invertebrate species to our own.
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    Meet your cousin,
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    Thalia democratica.
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    (Laughter)
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    I'm pretty sure you didn't save a spot
    at your last family reunion
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    for Thalia,
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    but let me tell you,
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    these animals are profoundly related to us
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    in ways that we're just
    beginning to understand.
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    So, next time you hear anybody
    derisively telling you
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    that this type of research
    is a simple fishing expedition,
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    I hope that you'll remember
    the trip that we just took.
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    Today, many of the biological
    sciences only see value
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    in studying deeper what we already know --
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    in mapping already-discovered continents.
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    But some of us are much more
    interested in the unknown.
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    We want to discover
    completely new continents,
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    and gaze at magnificent
    vistas of ignorance.
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    We crave the experience
    of being completely baffled
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    by something we've never seen before.
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    And yes, I agree
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    there's a lot of little ego satisfaction
    in being able to say,
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    "Hey, I was the first one
    to discover that."
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    But this is not
    a self-aggrandizing enterprise,
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    because in this type
    of discovery research,
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    if you don't feel like a complete
    idiot most of the time,
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    you're just not sciencing hard enough.
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    (Laughter)
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    So every summer I bring onto the deck
    of this little boat of ours
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    more and more things
    that we know very little about.
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    I would like tonight
    to tell you a story about life
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    that rarely gets told
    in an environment like this.
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    From the vantage point of our 21st-century
    biological laboratories,
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    we have begun to illuminate
    many mysteries of life with knowledge.
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    We sense that after centuries
    of scientific research,
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    we're beginning to make
    significant inroads
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    into understanding some of the most
    fundamental principles of life.
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    Our collective optimism is reflected
    by the growth of biotechnology
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    across the globe,
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    striving to utilize scientific knowledge
    to cure human diseases.
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    Things like cancer, aging,
    degenerative diseases;
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    these are but some
    of the undesirables we wish to tame.
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    I often wonder:
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    Why is it that we are having
    so much trouble
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    trying to solve the problem of cancer?
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    Is it that we're trying to solve
    the problem of cancer,
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    and not trying to understand life?
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    Life on this planet
    shares a common origin,
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    and I can summarize 3.5 billion years
    of the history of life on this planet
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    in a single slide.
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    What you see here are representatives
    of all known species in our planet.
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    In this immensity of life
    and biodiversity,
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    we occupy a rather unremarkable position.
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    (Laughter)
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    Homo sapiens.
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    The last of our kind.
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    And though I don't really want
    to disparage at all
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    the accomplishments of our species,
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    as much as we wish it to be so
    and often pretend that it is,
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    we are not the measure of all things.
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    We are, however, the measurers
    of many things.
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    We relentlessly quantify,
    analyze and compare,
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    and some of this is absolutely invaluable
    and indeed necessary.
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    But this emphasis today on forcing
    biological research to specialize
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    and to produce practical outcomes
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    is actually restricting our ability
    to interrogate life
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    to unacceptably narrow confines
    and unsatisfying depths.
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    We are measuring an astonishingly
    narrow sliver of life,
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    and hoping that those numbers
    will save all of our lives.
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    How narrow do you ask?
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    Well, let me give you a number.
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    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
    Administration recently estimated
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    that about 95 percent of our oceans
    remain unexplored.
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    Now let that sink in for a second.
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    95 percent of our oceans
    remain unexplored.
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    I think it's very safe to say
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    that we don't even know
    how much about life we do not know.
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    So, it's not surprising
    that every week in my field
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    we begin to see the addition
    of more and more new species
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    to this amazing tree of life.
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    This one for example --
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    discovered earlier this summer,
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    new to science,
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    and now occupying its lonely branch
    in our family tree.
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    What is even more tragic
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    is that we know about a bunch
    of other species of animals out there,
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    but their biology remains
    sorely under-studied.
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    I'm sure some of you
    have heard about the fact
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    that a starfish can actually
    regenerate its arm after it's lost.
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    But some of you might not know
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    that the arm itself can actually
    regenerate a complete starfish.
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    And there are animals out there
    that do truly astounding things.
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    I'm almost willing to bet
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    that many of you have never heard
    of the flatworm, Schmidtea mediterranea.
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    This little guy right here
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    does things that essentially
    just blow my mind.
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    You can grab one of these animals
    and cut it into 18 different fragments,
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    and each and every one of those fragments
    will go on to regenerate
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    a complete animal
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    in under two weeks.
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    18 heads, 18 bodies, 18 mysteries.
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    For the past decade and a half or so,
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    I've been trying to figure out
    how these little dudes do what they do,
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    and how they pull this magic trick off.
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    But like all good magicians,
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    they're not really releasing
    their secrets readily to me.
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    (Laughter)
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    So here we are,
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    after 20 years of essentially
    studying these animals,
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    genome mapping, chin scratching,
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    and thousands of amputations
    and thousands of regenerations,
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    we still don't fully understand
    how these animals do what they do.
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    Each planarian an ocean unto itself,
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    full of unknowns.
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    One of the common characteristics
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    of all of these animals
    I've been talking to you about
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    is that they did not appear
    to have received the memo
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    that they need to behave
    according to the rules
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    that we have derived from a handful
    of randomly selected animals
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    that currently populate the vast majority
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    of biomedical laboratories
    across the world.
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    Meet our Nobel Prize winners.
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    Seven species, essentially,
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    that have produced for us the brunt
    of our understanding
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    of biological behavior today.
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    This little guy right here --
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    three Nobel Prizes in 12 years.
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    And yet, after all the attention
    they have garnered,
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    and all the knowledge they have generated,
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    as well as the lion's share
    of the funding,
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    here we are standing [before] the same
    litany of intractable problems
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    and many new challenges.
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    And that's because, unfortunately,
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    these seven animals essentially correspond
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    to 0.0009 percent of all of the species
    that inhabit the planet.
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    So I'm beginning to suspect
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    that our specialization is beginning
    to impede our progress at best,
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    and at worst, is leading us astray.
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    That's because life
    on this planet and its history
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    is the history of rule breakers.
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    Life started on the face of this planet
    as single-cell organisms,
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    swimming for millions
    of years in the ocean,
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    until one of those creatures decided,
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    "I'm going to do things differently today;
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    today I would like to invent
    something called multicellularity,
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    and I'm going to do this."
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    And I'm sure it wasn't a popular
    decision at the time --
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    (Laughter)
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    but somehow, it managed to do it.
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    And then, multicellular
    organisms began to populate
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    all these ancestral oceans,
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    and they thrived.
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    And we have them here today.
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    Land masses began to emerge
    from the surface of the oceans,
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    and another creature thought,
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    "Hey, that looks like a really nice
    piece of real estate.
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    I'd like to move there."
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    "Are you crazy?
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    You're going to desiccate out there.
    Nothing can live out of water."
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    But life found a way,
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    and there are organisms
    now that live on land.
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    Once on land, they may have
    looked up into the sky
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    and said, "It would be nice
    to go to the clouds,
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    I'm going to fly."
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    "You can't break the law of gravity,
    there's no way you can fly."
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    And yet, nature has invented --
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    multiple and independent times --
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    ways to fly.
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    I love to study these animals
    that break the rules,
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    because every time they break a rule,
    they invent something new
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    that made it possible for us
    to be able to be here today.
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    These animals did not get the memo.
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    They break the rules.
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    So if we're going to study animals
    that break the rules,
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    shouldn't how we study them
    also break the rules?
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    I think we need to renew
    our spirit of exploration.
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    Rather than bring nature
    into our laboratories
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    and interrogate it there,
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    we need to bring our science
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    into the majestic laboratory
    that is nature,
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    and there, with our modern
    technological armamentarium,
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    interrogate every new form
    of life we find,
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    and any new biological attribute
    that we may find.
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    We actually need to bring
    all of our intelligence
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    to becoming stupid again --
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    clueless [before] the immensity
    of the unknown.
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    Because after all,
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    science is not really about knowledge.
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    Science is about ignorance.
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    That's what we do.
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    Once, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote,
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    "If you want to build a ship,
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    don't drum up people to collect wood
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    and don't assign them tasks and work,
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    but rather teach them to long
    for the endless immensity of the sea ..."
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    As a scientist and a teacher,
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    I like to paraphrase this to read
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    that we scientists need
    to teach our students
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    to long for the endless
    immensity of the sea
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    that is our ignorance.
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    We Homo sapiens are the only
    species we know of
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    that is driven to scientific inquiry.
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    We, like all other species on this planet,
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    are inextricably woven
    into the history of life on this planet.
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    And I think I'm a little wrong
    when I say that life is a mystery,
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    because I think that life
    is actually an open secret
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    that has been beckoning our species
    for millennia to understand it.
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    So I ask you:
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    Aren't we the best chance
    that life has to know itself?
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    And if so,
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    what the heck are we waiting for?
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    Thank you.
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    (Applause)
Title:
To solve old problems, study new species
Speaker:
Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado
Description:

Nature is wonderfully abundant, diverse and mysterious — but biological research today tends to focus on only seven species, including rats, chickens, fruit flies and us. We're studying an astonishingly narrow sliver of life, says biologist Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, and hoping it'll be enough to solve the oldest, most challenging problems in science, like cancer. In this visually captivating talk, Alvarado calls on us to interrogate the unknown and shows us the remarkable discoveries that surface when we do.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
12:39

English subtitles

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