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TEDxSummit

Juan Enriquez: Will our kids be a different species?

April 26, 2012

Throughout human evolution, multiple versions of humans co-existed. Could we be mid-upgrade now? At TEDxSummit, Juan Enriquez sweeps across time and space to bring us to the present moment -- and shows how technology is revealing evidence that suggests rapid evolution may be under way.

Juan Enriquez - Futurist
Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and other life sciences will bring in business, technology, politics and society. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
All right. So, like all good stories,
00:15
this starts a long, long time ago
00:17
when there was basically nothing.
00:19
So here is a complete picture of the universe
00:21
about 14-odd billion years ago.
00:24
All energy is concentrated into a single point of energy.
00:27
For some reason it explodes,
00:30
and you begin to get these things.
00:32
So you're now about 14 billion years into this.
00:34
And these things expand and expand and expand
00:37
into these giant galaxies,
00:39
and you get trillions of them.
00:40
And within these galaxies
00:42
you get these enormous dust clouds.
00:44
And I want you to pay particular attention
00:46
to the three little prongs
00:48
in the center of this picture.
00:49
If you take a close-up of those,
00:51
they look like this.
00:53
And what you're looking at is columns of dust
00:54
where there's so much dust --
00:57
by the way, the scale of this is a trillion vertical miles --
00:59
and what's happening is there's so much dust,
01:03
it comes together and it fuses
01:06
and ignites a thermonuclear reaction.
01:08
And so what you're watching
01:12
is the birth of stars.
01:13
These are stars being born out of here.
01:15
When enough stars come out,
01:16
they create a galaxy.
01:19
This one happens to be a particularly important galaxy,
01:20
because you are here.
01:24
(Laughter)
01:26
And as you take a close-up of this galaxy,
01:27
you find a relatively normal,
01:29
not particularly interesting star.
01:31
By the way, you're now about two-thirds of the way into this story.
01:33
So this star doesn't even appear
01:37
until about two-thirds of the way into this story.
01:40
And then what happens
01:43
is there's enough dust left over
01:44
that it doesn't ignite into a star,
01:45
it becomes a planet.
01:47
And this is about a little over four billion years ago.
01:49
And soon thereafter
01:54
there's enough material left over
01:55
that you get a primordial soup,
01:57
and that creates life.
02:02
And life starts to expand and expand and expand,
02:03
until it goes kaput.
02:07
(Laughter)
02:09
Now the really strange thing
02:13
is life goes kaput, not once, not twice,
02:14
but five times.
02:17
So almost all life on Earth
02:19
is wiped out about five times.
02:21
And as you're thinking about that,
02:24
what happens is you get more and more complexity,
02:25
more and more stuff
02:28
to build new things with.
02:29
And we don't appear
02:33
until about 99.96 percent of the time into this story,
02:34
just to put ourselves and our ancestors in perspective.
02:40
So within that context, there's two theories of the case
02:44
as to why we're all here.
02:47
The first theory of the case
02:49
is that's all she wrote.
02:51
Under that theory,
02:54
we are the be-all and end-all
02:55
of all creation.
02:57
And the reason for trillions of galaxies,
02:59
sextillions of planets,
03:02
is to create something that looks like that
03:04
and something that looks like that.
03:09
And that's the purpose of the universe;
03:12
and then it flat-lines,
03:14
it doesn't get any better.
03:15
(Laughter)
03:16
The only question you might want to ask yourself is,
03:21
could that be just mildly arrogant?
03:24
And if it is --
03:29
and particularly given the fact that we came very close to extinction.
03:31
There were only about 2,000 of our species left.
03:36
A few more weeks without rain,
03:39
we would have never seen any of these.
03:41
(Laughter)
03:45
(Applause)
03:51
So maybe you have to think about a second theory
03:56
if the first one isn't good enough.
03:59
Second theory is: Could we upgrade?
04:02
(Laughter)
04:04
Well, why would one ask a question like that?
04:06
Because there have been at least 29 upgrades so far
04:10
of humanoids.
04:12
So it turns out that we have upgraded.
04:14
We've upgraded time and again and again.
04:17
And it turns out that we keep discovering upgrades.
04:19
We found this one last year.
04:22
We found another one last month.
04:24
And as you're thinking about this,
04:27
you might also ask the question:
04:29
So why a single human species?
04:31
Wouldn't it be really odd
04:34
if you went to Africa and Asia and Antarctica
04:36
and found exactly the same bird --
04:40
particularly given that we co-existed at the same time
04:42
with at least eight other versions of humanoid
04:46
at the same time on this planet?
04:49
So the normal state of affairs
04:51
is not to have just a Homo sapiens;
04:53
the normal state of affairs
04:56
is to have various versions of humans walking around.
04:57
And if that is the normal state of affairs,
05:01
then you might ask yourself,
05:03
all right, so if we want to create something else,
05:06
how big does a mutation have to be?
05:08
Well Svante Paabo has the answer.
05:11
The difference between humans and Neanderthal
05:13
is 0.004 percent of gene code.
05:16
That's how big the difference is
05:19
one species to another.
05:21
This explains most contemporary political debates.
05:23
(Laughter)
05:28
But as you're thinking about this,
05:30
one of the interesting things
05:33
is how small these mutations are and where they take place.
05:34
Difference human/Neanderthal
05:38
is sperm and testis,
05:39
smell and skin.
05:41
And those are the specific genes
05:42
that differ from one to the other.
05:44
So very small changes can have a big impact.
05:46
And as you're thinking about this,
05:49
we're continuing to mutate.
05:51
So about 10,000 years ago by the Black Sea,
05:54
we had one mutation in one gene
05:56
which led to blue eyes.
05:58
And this is continuing and continuing and continuing.
06:01
And as it continues,
06:05
one of the things that's going to happen this year
06:06
is we're going to discover the first 10,000 human genomes,
06:08
because it's gotten cheap enough to do the gene sequencing.
06:11
And when we find these,
06:15
we may find differences.
06:16
And by the way, this is not a debate that we're ready for,
06:19
because we have really misused the science in this.
06:22
In the 1920s, we thought there were major differences between people.
06:25
That was partly based on Francis Galton's work.
06:29
He was Darwin's cousin.
06:33
But the U.S., the Carnegie Institute,
06:35
Stanford, American Neurological Association
06:37
took this really far.
06:40
That got exported and was really misused.
06:42
In fact, it led to some absolutely horrendous
06:45
treatment of human beings.
06:48
So since the 1940s, we've been saying there are no differences,
06:50
we're all identical.
06:53
We're going to know at year end if that is true.
06:54
And as we think about that,
06:57
we're actually beginning to find things
06:59
like, do you have an ACE gene?
07:00
Why would that matter?
07:04
Because nobody's ever climbed an 8,000-meter peak without oxygen
07:06
that doesn't have an ACE gene.
07:10
And if you want to get more specific,
07:13
how about a 577R genotype?
07:14
Well it turns out that every male Olympic power athelete ever tested
07:17
carries at least one of these variants.
07:22
If that is true,
07:25
it leads to some very complicated questions
07:27
for the London Olympics.
07:29
Three options:
07:31
Do you want the Olympics to be a showcase
07:33
for really hardworking mutants?
07:35
(Laughter)
07:38
Option number two:
07:40
Why don't we play it like golf or sailing?
07:43
Because you have one and you don't have one,
07:46
I'll give you a tenth of a second head start.
07:48
Version number three:
07:52
Because this is a naturally occurring gene
07:53
and you've got it and you didn't pick the right parents,
07:56
you get the right to upgrade.
07:58
Three different options.
08:02
If these differences are the difference
08:04
between an Olympic medal and a non-Olympic medal.
08:06
And it turns out that as we discover these things,
08:09
we human beings really like to change
08:12
how we look, how we act,
08:15
what our bodies do.
08:17
And we had about 10.2 million plastic surgeries in the United States,
08:19
except that with the technologies that are coming online today,
08:23
today's corrections, deletions,
08:26
augmentations and enhancements
08:29
are going to seem like child's play.
08:31
You already saw the work by Tony Atala on TED,
08:34
but this ability to start filling
08:37
things like inkjet cartridges with cells
08:41
are allowing us to print skin, organs
08:44
and a whole series of other body parts.
08:49
And as these technologies go forward,
08:51
you keep seeing this, you keep seeing this, you keep seeing things --
08:53
2000, human genome sequence --
08:57
and it seems like nothing's happening,
09:00
until it does.
09:04
And we may just be in some of these weeks.
09:07
And as you're thinking about
09:10
these two guys sequencing a human genome in 2000
09:12
and the Public Project sequencing the human genome in 2000,
09:15
then you don't hear a lot,
09:19
until you hear about an experiment last year in China,
09:22
where they take skin cells from this mouse,
09:26
put four chemicals on it,
09:30
turn those skin cells into stem cells,
09:32
let the stem cells grow
09:35
and create a full copy of that mouse.
09:37
That's a big deal.
09:40
Because in essence
09:43
what it means is you can take a cell,
09:44
which is a pluripotent stem cell,
09:46
which is like a skier at the top of a mountain,
09:49
and those two skiers become two pluripotent stem cells,
09:51
four, eight, 16,
09:55
and then it gets so crowded
09:57
after 16 divisions
09:58
that those cells have to differentiate.
10:00
So they go down one side of the mountain,
10:03
they go down another.
10:04
And as they pick that,
10:05
these become bone,
10:07
and then they pick another road and these become platelets,
10:09
and these become macrophages,
10:12
and these become T cells.
10:14
But it's really hard, once you ski down,
10:16
to get back up.
10:18
Unless, of course, if you have a ski lift.
10:19
And what those four chemicals do
10:24
is they take any cell
10:27
and take it way back up the mountain
10:29
so it can become any body part.
10:31
And as you think of that,
10:33
what it means is potentially
10:35
you can rebuild a full copy
10:37
of any organism
10:39
out of any one of its cells.
10:41
That turns out to be a big deal
10:43
because now you can take, not just mouse cells,
10:46
but you can human skin cells
10:48
and turn them into human stem cells.
10:51
And then what they did in October
10:54
is they took skin cells, turned them into stem cells
10:58
and began to turn them into liver cells.
11:01
So in theory,
11:05
you could grow any organ from any one of your cells.
11:06
Here's a second experiment:
11:11
If you could photocopy your body,
11:13
maybe you also want to take your mind.
11:16
And one of the things you saw at TED
11:19
about a year and a half ago
11:20
was this guy.
11:22
And he gave a wonderful technical talk.
11:23
He's a professor at MIT.
11:26
But in essence what he said
11:27
is you can take retroviruses,
11:29
which get inside brain cells of mice.
11:31
You can tag them with proteins
11:34
that light up when you light them.
11:36
And you can map the exact pathways
11:38
when a mouse sees, feels, touches,
11:42
remembers, loves.
11:45
And then you can take a fiber optic cable
11:48
and light up some of the same things.
11:50
And by the way, as you do this,
11:54
you can image it in two colors,
11:56
which means you can download this information
11:58
as binary code directly into a computer.
12:00
So what's the bottom line on that?
12:05
Well it's not completely inconceivable
12:07
that someday you'll be able to download your own memories,
12:09
maybe into a new body.
12:14
And maybe you can upload other people's memories as well.
12:16
And this might have just one or two
12:21
small ethical, political, moral implications.
12:24
(Laughter)
12:27
Just a thought.
12:29
Here's the kind of questions
12:32
that are becoming interesting questions
12:33
for philosophers, for governing people,
12:35
for economists, for scientists.
12:38
Because these technologies are moving really quickly.
12:41
And as you think about it,
12:45
let me close with an example of the brain.
12:46
The first place where you would expect
12:49
to see enormous evolutionary pressure today,
12:51
both because of the inputs,
12:54
which are becoming massive,
12:56
and because of the plasticity of the organ,
12:58
is the brain.
12:59
Do we have any evidence that that is happening?
13:02
Well let's take a look at something like autism incidence per thousand.
13:05
Here's what it looks like in 2000.
13:10
Here's what it looks like in 2002,
13:13
2006, 2008.
13:15
Here's the increase in less than a decade.
13:19
And we still don't know why this is happening.
13:23
What we do know is, potentially,
13:28
the brain is reacting in
13:30
a hyperactive, hyper-plastic way,
13:32
and creating individuals that are like this.
13:34
And this is only one of the conditions that's out there.
13:37
You've also got people with who are extraordinarily smart,
13:40
people who can remember everything they've seen in their lives,
13:44
people who've got synesthesia,
13:46
people who've got schizophrenia.
13:47
You've got all kinds of stuff going on out there,
13:49
and we still don't understand
13:51
how and why this is happening.
13:52
But one question you might want to ask is,
13:55
are we seeing a rapid evolution of the brain
13:57
and of how we process data?
14:00
Because when you think of how much data's coming into our brains,
14:02
we're trying to take in as much data in a day
14:05
as people used to take in in a lifetime.
14:08
And as you're thinking about this,
14:11
there's four theories as to why this might be going on,
14:14
plus a whole series of others.
14:16
I don't have a good answer.
14:17
There really needs to be more research on this.
14:19
One option is the fast food fetish.
14:23
There's beginning to be some evidence
14:25
that obesity and diet
14:27
have something to do
14:29
with gene modifications,
14:31
which may or may not have an impact
14:33
on how the brain of an infant works.
14:35
A second option is the sexy geek option.
14:39
These conditions are highly rare.
14:43
(Laughter)
14:47
(Applause)
14:50
But what's beginning to happen
14:55
is because these geeks are all getting together,
14:57
because they are highly qualified for computer programming
14:59
and it is highly remunerated,
15:02
as well as other very detail-oriented tasks,
15:05
that they are concentrating geographically
15:08
and finding like-minded mates.
15:10
So this is the assortative mating hypothesis
15:13
of these genes reinforcing one another
15:17
in these structures.
15:19
The third, is this too much information?
15:22
We're trying to process so much stuff
15:25
that some people get synesthetic
15:26
and just have huge pipes that remember everything.
15:28
Other people get hyper-sensitive to the amount of information.
15:31
Other people react with various psychological conditions
15:34
or reactions to this information.
15:38
Or maybe it's chemicals.
15:39
But when you see an increase
15:42
of that order of magnitude in a condition,
15:44
either you're not measuring it right
15:46
or there's something going on very quickly,
15:48
and it may be evolution in real time.
15:50
Here's the bottom line.
15:54
What I think we are doing
15:57
is we're transitioning as a species.
15:59
And I didn't think this when Steve Gullans and I started writing together.
16:01
I think we're transitioning into Homo evolutis
16:06
that, for better or worse,
16:09
is not just a hominid that's conscious of his or her environment,
16:10
it's a hominid that's beginning to directly and deliberately
16:14
control the evolution of its own species,
16:17
of bacteria, of plants, of animals.
16:21
And I think that's such an order of magnitude change
16:24
that your grandkids or your great-grandkids
16:27
may be a species very different from you.
16:30
Thank you very much.
16:33
(Applause)
16:35
Translator:Timothy Covell
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Juan Enriquez - Futurist
Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and other life sciences will bring in business, technology, politics and society.

Why you should listen

A broad thinker who studies the intersections of these fields, Enriquez has a talent for bridging disciplines to build a coherent look ahead. He is the managing director of Excel Venture Management, a life sciences VC firm. He recently published (with Steve Gullans) Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Shaping Life on Earth. The book describes a world where humans increasingly shape their environment, themselves and other species.

Enriquez is a member of the board of Synthetic Genomics, which recently introduced the smallest synthetic living cell. Called “JCVI-syn 3.0,” it has 473 genes (about half the previous smallest cell). The organism would die if one of the genes is removed. In other words, this is the minimum genetic instruction set for a living organism.

The original video is available on TED.com
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