Juan Enriquez & Steve Gullans: “Evolving Ourselves” | Talks at Google

afternoon and welcome to Talks at Google in
Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today it’s my great pleasure
to introduce Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans. Juan and Steve are here today
to talk about their book, “Evolving Ourselves:
How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom
Mutation are Changing Life on Earth,” in
which they state, “we are the primary
drivers of change. We will directly and indirectly
determine what lives, what dies, where, and when. We are in a different
phase of evolution. The future of life
is now in our hands.” I don’t know about
you, I don’t know if I’m quite ready for
this, so I’m hoping the talk and the book will
give us a way forward. Juan and Steve are co-founders
of Excel Venture Management, which build start-ups in
synthetic biology, big data, and new genetic technologies. Juan is a TED all-star. He chairs the Genetics Advisory
Council at Harvard Medical School, and was the founding
director of Harvard Business School’s life science project. Steve was a professor at Harvard
Medical School for 18 years. He has published more
than 130 scientific papers in leading journals. He was elected a fellow of
the American Association for the Advancement
of Science in 1998. Please join me in welcoming
Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So what I
think Steve and I would like to do today is give
you a short introduction to the theme, and then
Steve will say a few words, and then we’ll chat and
answer any questions you have. And I want to start
with a truth and a dare around a very specific question,
which is life’s evolution. So let’s just review Bio 101
for two or three minutes. This nice character,
Charles Darwin, one of the greatest scientists
and humanitarians ever born, came up with the
notion that life evolves according to two rules. This is the first sheet of when
he discovers, or thinks of, evolution. It’s the first time
he writes “I think” and then draws a tree of
life as to how things evolve. And this sheet was
actually shown in Britain a few years ago. It was absolutely
marvelous to see it. So how does life evolve? Well, life evolves according
to natural selection. And what does natural
selection mean? It means that very small
variations in how a bird eats, what is a predator to a
bird, what the climate is, what diseases are
attacking it, can lead to big changes in a body. In this case the
Galapagos finches, depending on whether there was
water or there wasn’t water, would develop different kinds
of beaks to have tougher seeds or to have smaller seeds. In a place like
this what you get is a whole lot of
natural selection. So you get these
little micro-niches where all of these
creatures learn how to survive,
evolve within here, and basically compete
against one another. And one of the ways
in which they compete is they have their
genes randomly mutate. So this is like a
gene casino, where you throw the dice
and the gene comes up with this letter or this letter
or this letter or this letter. A random mutation
is exactly that, which is the reason why you
can get cats with 23 toes. All right. It’s a random process. Things appear and disappear. They don’t have an order. There isn’t a rhyme
or a reason for it. And those changes
which are beneficial means that that creature
has children, who have children, who have children. This occurs in human
beings as well. And sometimes it isn’t pretty. Random mutation means you
could have six digits or seven. And when you’re thinking about
the consequences of this, sometimes when you
have random mutation it actually looks
like it makes sense. Maybe if you’re a coder. Maybe if you’re a coder you
would want to have six fingers. Or of course, maybe if
you’re a baseball pitcher. So this is Antonio Alfonseca. His nickname was The Octopus. He was born with 12
fingers, 12 toes, and he became the relief pitcher
of the year in the year 2000. So it turns out that having
six fingers in the right place allows you to do
things as a pitcher that other people can’t do. Random mutation works sometimes,
and often it does not. So what are the
drivers of evolution? What leads to
changes in evolution? What creates
evolutionary pressure? Well, you can have predators. If you have a
change in predators. If you take yourself in or
out of different food chains, that can lead to certain
kinds of development. Changing your food,
changing your microbes, your environment,
your population. If you become
domesticated, if you change your labor or exercise
regime you can have changes. And the key question here
is, how many of these factors do you suppose have
changed for human beings in the last century or two? Do you think we have
changed the predators? Are we still subject to grizzly
bears and mountain lions? Have we changed our food? Have we change the kinds
of microbes that attack us, as we take out
smallpox and polio? Have we changed our
environment just a little bit? Have we increased
our population? Have we become a different
type of domesticated species? And the jobs we have, are they
mostly outdoors and hard work or are they a
different kind of job? So as you go through
these questions let’s try a mind experiment. Let’s draw up Charles Darwin in
the middle of Trafalgar Square yesterday. So after the initial
brutal disorientation, after trying to figure out
what all these cars are, he’d begin to look around
and this is what he’d see. And he’d recognize most
of these buildings. And then in his little careful
way he’d take out his notebook and start taking notes
and what would he see? Well, the first thing he’d
see is, boy, human beings have gotten awfully big. Because now there’s about
1.46 billion overweight adults wandering around. And of course all of you saw
this in your last cross country trip when the middle seat
was occupied by somebody who liked your seat as well. House cats, house
dogs have gotten fat. The leading cause of
insurance claims today on pets is complications
related to obesity. The interesting thing
is, it’s not just domesticated pets and
humans that are getting fat. It turns out a lot of wild
animals are getting fat. So in fact, there’s
at least 12 species of animals that are
sitting out there that are getting fat
which you wouldn’t expect. Lab rats are getting
fat, and all of you know that when you
run an experiment you don’t want to have
changes in the variables. So it’s very odd that
lab monkeys, lab rats are getting fat. It’s even stranger that
wild horses that eat grass are getting fat. So it’s not just Twinkies, it’s
not just soft drinks out there. There’s something else happening
in this environment that is leading to obesity. A couple of potential
causes of this. The subtherapeutic
use of antibiotics. We’re using a lot of
antibiotics on farms. We don’t use them
to cure disease. We use them because
when you feed small amounts of antibiotics
to animals, you get weigh gain. Perhaps because
you can break some of the microbes in the
stomach and therefore you absorb more nutrients. As we put more and
more antibiotics into the environment, and a
whole lot more antibiotics are being used for
food promotion, spraying it on fruit trees,
putting it into chickens, putting it into pigs,
then we’re putting a whole lot of antibiotics
into the environment. Second thing that’s happening
which is interesting is, there’s a whole class of
chemicals called obesogens that tend to promote weight gain. So some of the chemicals
in our everyday products make it easier for fat
to accumulate in bodies. And we’re seeing that
effect not just on humans, we’re seeing it across
a series of animals. Second thing that’s
happening, or second thing Darwin would note is, we’ve
become a whole lot weaker. So a couple centuries
ago, most people worked hard labor someplace. They were working
on assembly lines, they were working
on industrial lines, they were working on farms, they
were doing pretty brutal work. And today of course
we have become coders. We have become office people. And sometimes if
we work out enough, you don’t have the same
effect, but for most of us we are quite weak compared
to folks 150 years ago. Third thing he’d notice– boy,
has this population gotten old. Where are all the kids? There are so many
old people walking around Trafalgar Square. And of course, if there
was a race coming by then you’d notice that there
were 75-year-olds that were beating the
younger people as they race by in a half marathon. If you tabulate these and many
other changes, what you find is, in a very short period of
time, in less than 150 years, you get really
substantial changes in the morphology
of the human body. If you saw this in
any other animal you would ask the question,
is this a new species? And of course when you
ask that of human beings you begin to get some visions
that perhaps tell you, not only is it heading
in a different direction, but it might also be mutating. That leads to an
interesting question. Were this guy
writing today, if he were walking through the
labs here in Cambridge, if he knew what we now know
about molecular biology, would he be writing
the same books? And the answer is, it’s not just
the morphology that’s changing, so are the basic
drivers of evolution. Let me explain that. For four billion years,
nature ran the show. So nature was in charge, OK? And how was nature in charge? You had natural selection. So survival of the fittest,
and you’d have this cycle, and what would happen is you’d
get these random mutations, and the random mutations
would allow something that was on the verge
of going extinct to have one version that may
have adapted better in that environment
that would then survive, have a lot of
kids, thrive in that niche. And it was this cycle
of natural selection and random mutation
that determined what lived and died on earth
for close to 4 billion years. Over the last century
what’s ended up happening is humans
now run half the show. So humans determine what lives
and dies on at least half of the surface of
the earth and half of the oceans of the earth. And what that means is
that unnatural selection and nonrandom
mutation are beginning to determine what lives and
dies, begin to drive evolution. Let me explain this. So for at least half
of life on Earth, unnatural selection looks
something like this. This is not what you
would find if nature were running the show, OK? You do not find cattle– you
find buffalo, but not cattle on these kinds of plains. You do not find these kinds
of plants on these plains. You do not find human
beings traditionally on these kinds of
plains, and you certainly didn’t find horses on
the American plains, being ridden by humans. You want to be
even more extreme, just walk into a cornfield. What lives and
dies in a cornfield has nothing to do with
what nature would select. It has everything to
do with what we want. We don’t want birds
eating the seed, we don’t want weeds
eating over here, we don’t want any
plants that aren’t corn. We want corn and we
want it for miles and we want it in orderly rows. That is not natural selection,
that is human selection. And our rural landscape
absolutely reflects this. So as you go out
and you look at, not only what does the
landscape look like, but what grows there, we have
so thoroughly changed nature to our purposes that wild
mustard weed, something that looks like this, sometimes
has its flowers suppressed. When you suppress the flowers of
mustard weed you get broccoli. Otherwise you
wouldn’t get broccoli. When you have bigger leaves
in the mustard weed then you get kale, which you can
buy downstairs in your cafe. When you sterilize
mustard flowers then you get cauliflower. So you can take
this weed and you can change the genes or the
physical characteristics or the way it
grows and evolve it to suit your purposes, your
size, your color, your desire, your productivity. But that has nothing to
do with random selection, and that has nothing
to do random mutation. That has to do with our
breeding, hybridizing, guiding what we want
these plants to do. And of course we’ve been
doing this with ourselves. We’ve gone from being
primarily a rural species that traditionally, for over
90 percent of its history, lived in groups of about
150, and separated every time it got above 150 into these
large urban communities. And what’s happened in
the last decade or two is, we’ve gone from being a
majority rural species living in small towns and villages, to
being a majority urban species. And some of these urban areas
are getting quite large. To be able to live in
communities like this you have to change the animal. If you take a wild animal and
you change the environment it can have some rapid
evolutionary pressure, and the same thing is
happening with human beings. Let me give you a sense of
how fast this is happening. So China, in three years,
used 150 percent more cement than the US did in a century. China, in the next
couple of decades, is going to build 30 cities that
are as large as some of the 30 largest cities on the planet. This is an enormous
process of urbanization, and something similar is
going to happen in India. To domesticate ourselves, to
domesticate our pets, what we have to do is we have
to take species, animals, that normally don’t live
together, de-wild them, teach them to live with those
that are traditionally not their friends, and teach
them a series of rules. Because if you’re going to
live in a very tight-knit environment maybe
you can tolerate a couple of psychopaths
on the Mongolian plain if you’re going out as Genghis
Khan to conquer the continent and you’ve got the whole
continent in front of you. But if you have five psychopaths
in your 60 story building in New York or Hong
Kong or London, that is a very bad thing to do. So what you end up
doing is you end up domesticating not just dogs,
not just cats, but also humans. And this process
of domestication has been going on
for a long time. Those places that did not have
a state, did not have dictators, did not have kings, were
incredibly dangerous places to live in. So if you look at non-state
societies on the top, your chances of being violently
killed throughout your lifetime were astronomical, even when
compared with ancient Mexico, the first line on the bottom. So you take the Mayas,
you take the Aztecs, you take the Toltecs– you
take all these people who would sacrifice thousands
and made the pyramids, they were still a whole
lot less violent– because it was a
state-sanctioned violence– than were societies
that were not organized into states societies. Then by the time you get
to France the 19th century, the violence has come down. By the time you get to Western
Europe, US, and the world in 2007 at the very bottom. So the world,
despite what you’re reading, which is horrendous
in Congo, in Mexico, in ISIS and a whole series of places, is
a whole lot more peaceful today than it’s ever been. All you have to do
is go to any museum. So if you go down the street
here to the Museum of Fine Arts and you look at the paintings
from the 1400s and the 1500s, what you’re going to see is that
the entertainment on Saturday was to see if you could
take somebody and burn them to death while you were
torturing them, while you were whipping them, while
you were stabbing them, before you dismembered them. And that was kind of common
entertainment, right? Please don’t do this
because we will hurt you and we will make it
last for a long time, and we will make an
example out of you. As we decided that these types
of things were not things we wanted to see and we
did not want our kids to see it in the main
square on Saturdays, what started happening is we
began domesticating violence. So if you were a European
New Englander in 1650 you were eight times more likely
to die in a violent incident than you were by 1800. This is not applicable
to African Americans, it’s not applicable
to Hispanics, but if you were a white
New Englander this was a really, really
dangerous place in 1650 and it was far
less-dangerous by 1800. For other groups it took longer. So we continued to treat groups
of the population in absolutely barbaric ways through
Darwin’s time. If you were an
escaped slave, this is part of what
would happen to you. And you’d be left to
hang so that everybody could see you suffer for days. We do not consider this
rational, reasonable behavior here or anywhere. So as we go out and we
domesticate ourselves, part of what we’re
seeing is we’re seeing this collapse in violence. And this collapse in violence
is happening almost everywhere. If you look at the G5 or
if you look at Boston. When I was in college,
the old combat zone was not a place where you wanted
to get off the Trombly bus. Today it’s the funky
theater district. Near your offices
in New York, Chelsea was not the nicest place to be. 42nd Street was a
very dangerous street. Today it looks like Disneyland. So as we go through this
process of rapid domestication, the other thing
that’s happened is we’ve been able to create
wealth on an absolutely unprecedented level. For most of human
history, we could not generate enough calories
to keep everybody alive. We had huge starvation incidence
and we had a huge incidence of malnutrition. Today in Mexico the
incidence of obesity is greater than the
incidence of malnutrition. And that’s certainly true
of many other countries. So what we’re doing these
days through businesses that are high tech businesses,
through a whole series of educational structures,
by educating women, by educating our kids,
is we’re able to generate enormous output
per person, which is generating an
enormous amount of GDP for the world as a whole. And the other thing
that’s happened in this process of
domestication is nature– this big, tough,
survival of the fittest, select the people who
are going to survive– has all of a sudden become
this funky little thing where we go out on a weekend and we
put on our little Patagonia jacket and we put on our
little fluorescent things and we go for a hike in nature. We did not used to do that, OK? The edge of the forest
was a dangerous place. It’s a place where you could
become a part of the food chain because there were bears,
because there were mountain lions, because there were
robbers, because there was disease, because there were
a whole series of reasons why most people for most of their
lives stuck very close to home. Because nature was not
a place to go and play. Nature was a place
to be afraid of. And today nature has
become our playground. We got out on the weekend. I’m going for a
hike in the forest. Nature has become a
plaything for most of us. That is true even of most
violent weather events. As we get better at
predicting these things one of the things
that happens is, every single decade
the deaths per year and the death rates per year
have gone through the floor. As we get better at
predicting hurricanes what you say is, be careful,
there’s a hurricane coming. Evacuate, put your things
up, get your flashlights, get your water, bring
the kids indoors. As you get tornadoes,
tornado warning systems are getting better and better. Now, this is not
true for everything. It is not true for
earthquakes yet, which also can be important
for the high-tech industry. But on the whole,
your chances of dying due to an extreme weather
event are dropping and dropping and dropping as we
domesticate this. So that’s what un-natural
selection looks like. Now let’s talk about
non-random mutation because that is also a
big driver of evolution. Berg, Boyer, and Cohen. It sounds like a law firm. But what these
three characters did is they figured out how
to do what all you do, which is how to code. Except they weren’t
using digital code, they were using life code. So these three
characters figured out you can insert genes,
you can move genes, you can do biotechnology. They built some huge companies
coming out of this database and they built a huge industry
and they began to change life based on this stuff. What that means is,
nature goes from operating on a strictly random
mutation basis to a non-random mutation basis. And if I were to choose
to be mildly provocative I’d say we’re even heading
towards intelligent design. What does this mean? It means, if you spend about
$40 billion– $40 million, not billion– and you go out
and work for four or five years, you can take a picture
that looks like this. And I know you’re wildly
excited by this picture. So was I. So what is this picture? Well, this picture is
the first bacterial cell controlled by a chemically
synthesized genome. Which means Craig Venter and Ham
Smith and John Glass and a team was able to go out and code
from scratch the operating system for a cell. That means that cells become
programmable in the same way as you can program an Intel
chip and say to the chip, please give me a map,
please give me a direction, please give me a
review of a restaurant, please give me a accounting,
please research this, please code that. As long as it’s
in ones and zeros it really doesn’t matter what’s
moving through that chip. Well, what this
little cell means is, you can begin to code this chip
to execute various functions. Out of this little discovery
we created a company called Synthetic Genomics. And what Synthetic
Genomics does is it tries to make fuels for
one of the largest fuel companies in the world. It makes chemicals for one
of the largest chemical companies in the world. It makes food for one largest
food companies in the world. It stores information on an
absolutely massive basis. It humanizes pig
organs so they can be transplanted into humans. And the kinds of
coders that you’re going to see in a room like
this in a decade, two decades, three decades, are
increasingly going to be people who are moving
between digital code and life code because life code is
a very powerful system. One big difference between
what coders do today and what coders do
tomorrow is, this software builds its own hardware. No matter how you
program a computer, you’re not going to find 1,000
computers in the morning. But if I were to ask you,
who is the most published author across all time in all
additions in all languages, most of you probably
wouldn’t tell it’s George Church, who was
a Harvard Medical School professor, who figured out
that anything you can code in ATCG– the four
letters of DNA– you can code in ones and zeros. So you could say A equals
00, T equals 01, G equals 10, C equals 11. And digital code becomes
interchangeable with life code. It becomes bioinformatics. And anything you can
write in digital code you can now write in life
code, with the difference that this software makes
its own hardware, which means he put his book into
a bacteria that reproduced a billion times, and his first
edition was a billion copies. You can store almost the entire
world’s information in database in a glass of water if
you’re storing it in DNA. So as this stuff
moves forward, instead of having random
mutation– and this is a slide by Drew Endy where
he describes this process. Random mutation takes
the first line of code that you see up there. So a creature is born,
a creature has no eyes, it develops one eye, has a
few generations of one eye, it tries two eyes,
two eyes are better. Then it goes back to one eye
because it’s a random mutation. Then some of the one-eyed
survive but the two-eyed do even better. And then starts developing
other facial features. But this is a very
long time scale. You’re looking at centuries
or millennia for these things to take place. When we start
controlling and making this stuff non-random,
what we do is we go out, we find a mutation
we like, we sequence it, we put it into ATCGs,
put it in digital code, synthesize it and put
it in another organism. And then things have
two eyes from then on. So it goes from being
a random process into being a very
directed process, and this shortens the
time scale brutally. It means evolution
takes place according to our will, our design,
in a short period of time. That’s why you’re having
debates over the past month over a technological
called CRISPR. CRISPR is something that was
developed very close to here, in Cambridge, Mass. It was developed first out of
yogurt, actually, [INAUDIBLE]. But there’s three centers that
are pushing CRISPR very hard. And what that means is,
instead of coding individually, line by line, you can
take huge blocks of code and take them from
here and insert them over here, and
taken them from here and insert them over
here, which means you can have a very, very
rapid evolution of creatures and species and bacteria
and plants and animals in a very directed basis. And high school kids and college
kids can use this technology. And that’s leading
some scientists to ask the question,
what happens if we start editing humans? So within the past
month you’ve seen letters like this and
reactions like this because, among other
things, sometime this year, the first human being
born to three parents will be born in Great
Britain, genetically. Why is that happening? Because some children are
born with a random mutation that is sometimes deadly. Sometimes it’s inherited,
but the consequences are horrendous. Basically it’s like having
cells without a battery, and you get all kinds of just
horrible medical side effects and death early
for these children. So what are they doing? They’re taking the cells
from a third human being and inserting it
into the original egg and changing the
gene code of that. That has a couple
of implications. Implication number
one, first human being born to three
genetic parents. Implication number two, that
child, if he or she has babies, will pass on this mutation
to their children. So you’re not just
editing the individual, you’re editing the subsequent
copies of that individual. And that’s a different gig
from just editing individuals. Some people say this
is moving too fast. Well, it is moving fast. In part because of this zip
code, because every year MIT hosts the international
genetically engineered machine competition. And you have a
bunch of coders who come in here, not with
computers, but with living things that they’ve been
coding over the last year. And they show each
other what they’ve made. So some of these kids
are coding bacteria so they have a 100 megapixel
resolution on photographs, about 10 times a
high-end digital camera. Some kids are coding yogurt
so that it substitutes for part of your kidney. Some kids are trying to make
television plasma screens that are alive. And the Tokyo yeam– the Tokyo
team came in and made four very simple changes. That came in and
they said, OK, we’re going to take a
basic bacteria, we’re going to make sure it
doesn’t burn with radiation, we’re going to make
sure it doesn’t freeze, we’re going to make
sure that it oxidizes, and we’re going to make sure
that the thing doesn’t sunburn. Technically that’s
not that big a deal. Those are just four mutations
inserted into a bacteria. But when you ask these kids,
why are you doing this stuff, the ambition was breathtaking. Because what they
wanted to do was to stick this stuff in
the nose cones of rockets, shoot them at the
Martian ice caps, have the bacteria
land, survive, oxidize, create an atmosphere that
would terraform Mars. So the implication of software
that builds its own hardware can be significant. And in the same ways
you used to have internet cafes and
the same way as you used to have these
little hacker clubs, today you’ve got
these biocurious clubs where, for $150, you
have access to all the machines necessary to
begin to play with gene code. So here’s the
truth in this talk. The truth is, it’s not the
religious fundamentalists that are slowly killing Darwin. It’s science. And they’re slowly killing
Darwin not because he’s wrong. Darwin is absolutely right
and he got the rules right, and that’s the way life
operated for four billion years. But what we’ve got
now is we’ve got a parallel evolutionary
system that’s operating on a different logic. And that different logic
of what lives and what dies depends on what human beings
want to decide to live or die, not what nature is deciding. Humans are directly and
deliberately taking– beginning to take
control over evolution. And as they do so
a part of evolution is now being driven by
un-natural selection and non-random mutation. And that has a whole series
of implications for life. So here’s the dare in this talk. Dare we take control
of evolution and deal with its symptoms
and consequences? And if you take that
question seriously, there isn’t anything on
earth that doesn’t change. You’re going to see
changes in diseases we get, you’re going to changes
in how long we live, you’re going to see changes
in the types of companies we build, you’re going to
say changes in what we grow, in what lives and what dies,
in new species coming up, perhaps an extinct
species being resurrected, and whole series of
species disappear. There are symptoms and
there are consequences of this rapid evolution, and
we should be asking ourselves if we are going to redesign
bacteria, plants, animals, and ourselves. What do we want to ask
archaeologists– or what do we want archaeologists to
find in 1,000 years and 10,000 years and 100,000 years? Because we now have
the power– we’re beginning to have the power–
to answer these questions. Let me close with one last
thought, because you’re all coders. There are decades
where nothing happens, and then there are weeks
where decades happen. And that just happened
over the last year. So for four billion
years, as far as we know, most life was coded in DNA. Most life was coded in
these four bands of ATCG that are inside DNA. So you know what the code
was, you knew how to write it. But as of the last year, because
of this lab, we now have AT XY. What does that mean? That means that now you have
a system of heredity that passes on life code that is
written in chemicals that are different from what
life on this planet has been written for for
the last four billion years. In theory, what
this means is, you could create a
set of plants that would be immune to most or all
viruses, most or all bacteria. A completely parallel
evolutionary tree that wouldn’t breed with
this evolutionary tree. You’d watch evolution happen
in a completely different way. Long-term, it means
we’re going to be able to code for wholly
different chemical environments. So if we wanted, for
instance, to live in a place that was very
different from Earth. This begins to give you a sense
that maybe you couldn’t design something that
looks like humans, but maybe you could design
bacteria for that place. Maybe you could even design
basic plants or something that looks like them. And that is why we all
have to pay attention to how we’re evolving
ourselves and what we’re going to do with
this new-found power. And now I’ll let Steve
make some comments. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] STEVE GULLANS: I’m
going to follow up with just a few minutes to try
to personalize a little bit, and in terms of what
does this mean to you. It sounds like a very
big idea, a lot of ideas, and how is it actually relevant
to getting up and walking out and thinking about next week,
next month, next year for you. About a year and a half
ago, while writing the book, Juan and I were living
in this bizarre world that you’ve just seen, trying
to pull pieces of it together. My wife and I were
sitting there when we got a Skype call
from my daughter and my son-in-law announcing
that they were– my daughter was pregnant. And with that I panicked,
because I suddenly knew too much about
evolution at a time when I had no idea
where my DNA was headed and I needed to come
to grips with this. I spent furious weeks actually
creating a new chapter. And it’s called A
Perfectly Modern Pregnancy, as you’ll see in the book. And what’s interesting
about this is, you and I and the
people in this room live in a very different world
than people in Darwin’s day. We’re educated, we have
a perfect indoor climate every day, we have modern
medicine, we are smarter, we have all of these
great attributes. In fact, life is
pretty good for us. So why would these scenarios
about evolution changing have an impact on us
in any way, shape, or form that we would
really care about? Well, this is when I bumped
into this world called transgenerational
inheritance, or transgenerational heritability. It turns out that every mother
and father at the earliest ages, in fact in utero,
are going to become parents someday, and their
sperm and eggs are carrying on the surface
little listening receptors, listening to the world at large. So that the next generation,
once you become pregnant, is informed it’s time to
famine, it’s time to plenty. There’s a bacterial
infection out there, there’s violence going on. And so in fact the
next generation is being prepared without
it having even big conceived or in utero, for what
it’s about to come into. And we’ve seen this over
the last about 100 years of studies. Very rarely in humans, at
times of war we find famine and it’s actually propagated. Famine in parents or
parents to be is propagated. It’s metabolic, heart
disease, and schizophrenia two generations later, even
though everybody in between, including the original
grandparents, had enough food. There’s also good
scenarios, where people have actually
good exposures to life, that actually
have very good outcomes. So in fact there is a memory, a
memory of a life we’re living, the memory of the life
our parents lived, and a memory of our
grandparents lives that resides within us that lives every day. What’s the good news? We live great
lives by and large, compared to what
happened before. But we also see– in other words
we’re seeing we’re brighter, we have less disease
in general, we have actually fewer headaches. But were also saying rises in
a number of conditions, autism, obesity, and everything else. Nobody can find the genes. We discussed this in the book. You generally find genes
that account for about 5%. But meanwhile,
this nature nurture is locked in synchrony
to figure out how to take care of
the next generation in the world to come. So as my daughter
was having the baby I was going through
month-by-month looking at what food she was eating,
what vitamins were going on, the recent peanut allergy
thing that came out. I had her shipping
her peanuts every week to eat when she was pregnant. And she was going,
what’s this about? But I was seeing abstracts in
the literature about exposure to antigens. So as we live over
the next few years– and my daughter came out
with a beautiful pregnancy. You actually saw
my granddaughter in the pictures of
the mutated chicken. That was her Halloween
costume this last year. Although we’re still curious
about my son-in-law’s DNA, to be honest. But frankly the world at
large for my granddaughter is going to be beautiful,
but we have many things to learn in the near term. And in fact, just one
final note about– what is it that is coming? We all have DNA, we
all understand DNA. It’s the be all and end all. It turns out, in a
computer context that’s like the operating system. It virtually never changes. It’s the most boring
part of our biology. In fact, we have four genomes
that we’re all born with. And one keeps us alive,
keeps us reproducing. That’s our DNA. We’re all 99.9%
identical, otherwise we wouldn’t survive
as a species. The other two are your epigenome
which is switches on your DNA that get flipped. This is what happens
when the famine comes. This is what happens when
the violence changes, when the weather
comes, when you’re deprived of love as a child, why
does it turn to heart disease when you’re 80? These are these switches
getting flipped. That’s a very important genome. And the epigenetic code
has not been uncovered. And that’s like having
programs like Word or Microsoft or, you know, any
of the applications. The next one is your
microbes in your body. We’re now finding
microbes that are providing 30 percent
of the nutrients and toxins in our body. Every day we are
carrying these around. They’ve changed completely
in the last 50 years because of antibiotics, because
of the food we eat, we are totally
engineering the microbes. This is like little apps. They’re actually sitting
on top of our genome, changing little
applications every day. And they will be engineered
into functional foods in the next decade. And finally there’s
viruses that live in us. At the DNA level
they’re 10-fold more abundant than bacteria, which
are 10-fold more abundant than our human cells. This is the dark matter
of humanity right now. These viruses that live in
us, we do not understand. They’re driving our
evolution, they’re driving our nature every day,
and there’s more to come. But what I can say is, if you
have a healthy, happy life and follow the
basic rules that you hear every week
from your doctor, things are going to
work out pretty well. And with that I’ll say,
thank you very much. I hope you read our book. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] JUAN ENRIQUEZ: Questions? Comments? Rebuttals? Please. AUDIENCE: Isn’t this sort
of the logical [INAUDIBLE] of any self-replicating
system [INAUDIBLE] and therefore perfectly natural? I mean– JUAN ENRIQUEZ:
There’s a whole debate as to what’s actually natural. So when you go to a organic
food market on a weekend and you go shopping for
all these wonderful organic things– all natural corn
used to be called teocintley and it was smaller
than your thumbnail and it had multi-colored
grains and they didn’t fall off easily. All natural tomatoes used to
be green, tiny, and poisonous. Potatoes used to be poisonous. So what we’ve been doing
for a long period of time is to evolve things
to our purposes and select things
to our purposes. Now, what we’ve
been doing lately is we’ve been doing things that
are, I think, far more extreme. On the one hand you
could say, well, humans are just a evolutionary system
and they’re a natural outgrowth of an evolutionary system. Yeah, but I think
it’s important to make a distinction between
what we’re doing, how we’re engineering
stuff, and how things worked in Darwin’s time. Because if you don’t do that,
then what ends up happening is you don’t take responsibility
for what you’re doing. You kind of say, you know,
this stuff just happens. It’s all natural, que sera sera. And it’s not que
sera sera, right? It’s, I choose to do this at
this point to this species. And that has real consequences. And if we want to continue
to have the power we have and continue to
deploy it, we better recognize that this is a
break point in evolution. STEVE GULLANS: And
we’re just following up on what Darwin said. He attributed natural selection
that anything was effectively not driven by humans. He used terms like artificial
selection, human selection, because he understood
animal breeding. He understood plant breeding. But he said these are
two different worlds. And from his perspective,
150 years ago, nature will always win. That’s what we think
is in debate now. AUDIENCE: I guess I can’t
get a sense of whether or not you guys think this is a
good thing or a bad thing to have the ability to do this. JUAN ENRIQUEZ: Well,
it’s up to all of us. We tend to be
optimistic curmudgeons but, you know, it’s
what we choose. Right? It’s not just, oh my
goodness, this happened to me. There are consequences
to choices. AUDIENCE: So what
would happen if we use this technology to engineer
our own selves to live forever? And then we don’t care
about future generations because we’ll just
stop procreating and– isn’t that a
possible scenario? STEVE GULLANS: It’s certainly
a possible scenario. I mean, the way we
see new technologies in terms of health
care kinds of systems like we’re talking about here
is, first you do the obvious. You take on tragic
neonatal diseases, children born with genetic
problems and things like that. In fact, the first
gene therapy was just approved three years
ago for an inborn error of metabolism for kids. From there you move
into older people, like cancers and
things like that. And that’s where
these technologies are getting deployed right now. And we’re at the very dawn
of these technologies having an impact. But in other aspects
of other things we’ve seen in health
care technologies, it’s not very long before
they move into beauty. For example, you
have Lasik surgery because people don’t
want to have glasses. You have Botox. You have all of these
things that were initially designed to treat
diseases are actually being treated for other things. And so aging and then
beauty, and then sports comes in with the growth
factors and things like that. AUDIENCE: And you
can give people blood serum of younger people. STEVE GULLANS: Absolutely. And– AUDIENCE: And also your own. You can donate now. STEVE GULLANS: There are many
ways– so you go, I want health and then I want to not age, and
then I want to live forever, is basically what
it comes down to. And people appear to
continue to pursue this. Now, the technologies that
are going to come to be used are going to be more powerful. And it really comes first
down to safety and costs. When will they be safe
and cost effective? And at that point–
well, we need to have a debate now–
but at that point, the rules will probably change
in terms of how societies look at it, just as we have
rules around taking vaccines for the measles. It’s not viewed as
a personal choice in many parts this country,
whether you actually get the measles or not. AUDIENCE: But I
would argue that it’s a personal choice if you want to
live forever versus, you know– and not have any children,
versus having children and then deciding to make room
for them on this planet. JUAN ENRIQUEZ: But see,
even your question– which is an interesting
question– we decouple sex from time. So for our grandparents
it was basically, marriage and kids
a few months later. AUDIENCE: Right. JUAN ENRIQUEZ: And
today we choose. You know, I’m not going to have
kids for the next three years, or even if I’m
going to have kids I can have kids and freeze
the sperm, freeze the eggs, freeze the fertilized eggs, put
them into a surrogate mother and have a child that is
born years after conception. And now you’re beginning to
say, not only can I do that, but I can begin to do some
diagnostics on the genes or I can change
part of the genes. So there’s a whole series of
really important questions that are going to change
and challenge us and our kids in ways that
we just can’t imagine. None of us are going
to live forever. But we did double the
lifespan in the last century. And we’re likely to double the
lifespan again in this century. And after that, as these
things accelerate– right now we’re adding about one year
of life per every 10 years we live. And as this stuff accelerates,
if life or consciousness becomes downloadable, then
you get some very interesting effects. AUDIENCE: Devil’s advocate here. STEVE GULLANS: The curmudgeon. AUDIENCE: So we all know one
of the most pressing concerns about all of this is an
unlucky accident, right? What was that science fiction
short story about Ice-nine? Wasn’t it Ray Bradbury
or something where it got dropped in the sink
and the world froze? OK? STEVE GULLANS: Kurt Vonnegut. AUDIENCE: Yeah. “Cat’s
Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut. OK. So what if we, you know,
accidentally mutate or deliberately mutate a
virus or a bacteria, something small most likely, that’s
really good at what it does and it doesn’t like– well,
maybe we’re food, right? And we’re kind of a
monoculture, right? So you must get this question
all the time, don’t you? And how do you answer that? JUAN ENRIQUEZ: I turn to Steve
and I say, go ahead, Steve. STEVE GULLANS: We deal with
dystopian futures all the time and stuff like this. And it’s been if you go
back to [INAUDIBLE] it’s the idea that
everything is coming to an end because of some new
technology is not unusual. That’s a pretty typical thing. To think that this
is more powerful, at least today, than anything
we’ve ever seen before, in some ways is true but
in many ways is not true because it underestimates
what we as a human species, both technically
and I think morally, are going to be able to do. And that’s because I’m working
from an optimistic perspective. I think our ability to
control these things is better than
people appreciate. JUAN ENRIQUEZ: And the flip side
is, we’re also building things like a digital
biological converter that will allow you to take
a small vial of flu, sequence it, put it into a
computer program that compares it to every known
flu, design a vaccine, beam that up to an airplane
and print a vaccine before that airplane lands. So as we meet new
challenges as things evolve, as things
get created, I’m pretty optimistic we’re
going to be able to go after a whole series of things. I think we’ll be able to
take out cancer probably in the next decade
or two, most cancers. I think after that
you’ve got to take out Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. And once you do that then one of
the leading cause of accidents in the world, with some research
that Steve did, is accidents. It’s falling down
staircases, it’s getting tangled in bed
sheets, that’s what starts to kill a lot of people. Because we’ve gotten rid of
most of the top 10 killers from Darwin’s time. If you look at top 10
causes of death in 1850, we’ve gotten rid of almost all. AUDIENCE: I very earnestly
hope you’re right about that. JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So do I.
And if we’re not right I’ll give you a really
expensive bottle of wine. AUDIENCE: So you made
a lot of comparisons to computer science. And I think one
thing that has really accelerated the speed at which
we can write computer code is that we went from punch
cards, to assembly language, to Java. And now– Python, right? And you can just, like,
download libraries that do the common things
that you need to do and you’re just–
you’re writing your code at a much higher level. Are there initiatives to do this
on a biological scale as well? STEVE GULLANS: There’s
lots of initiatives, both in terms of designing
things and building things. And the first point I
should make is, like coding, you can learn it as a child. Manipulating genes you
can learn as a child. These are basically recipes
you can do in your kitchen. And you can go to the
internet and find out what the– we’re
talking about bacteria that grow naturally everywhere. In the dirt, on your
kitchen counter, anything, and learning
how to manipulate those is not a huge technical change. We have not been operating at
a level of, basically, ones and zeros with ATCG and
higher-level programming languages effectively
are coming out right now. AUDIENCE: Yeah? STEVE GULLANS: These are
some of the companies we’re seeing– yeah– where
you can actually take a metabolic pathway
and slot that in, and you can take a sensing
pathway and put that in. And then the synthetic
systems to build these things, computerized, roboticized
events are actually going to allow you to
assemble things in– AUDIENCE: At a higher level. STEVE GULLANS: And there’s
libraries of functional units. These are called BioBricks. Actually the name was made up
here in [INAUDIBLE] and people at the MIT. BioBricks. These are actually
functional units from different species
that are stored and they actually give
you a three by five card with a gene on it–
spotted onto it if you want to take it home with you. So this is no different than
the 4H club or the erector set in terms of understanding
the components in building. And we know there will be
higher level things that are built on top of each other. AUDIENCE: Great. Thank you. AUDIENCE: So coming
back to random versus non-random mutation. You’ll have to excuse my
ignorance in this field, but what is the
source of randomness for the random mutation? STEVE GULLANS:
Random mutation– we have three billion GATs and Cs
in a single set of chromosomes in a human, and every
time a cell divides– and you’re filled with
gazillions of cells– it has to make an exact copy of that. And that exact copy
is done by enzymes. And going from mother
to child there’s about 100 errors made
in that copying process. It’s just a stochastic,
as far as we can tell, almost random or random
event across the genome. And so these are just a
single G or a single T or A or C is changed. And if it doesn’t affect you
functionally you’re fine. A simple arithmetic
analysis says, if there’s 7 billion
people on the planet you have 3 billion bases of DNA. So there’s more people
than there is DNA. And everybody carries 100. That means 700 billion
DNA sequence errors exist. So every possible mutation
that you can live with exists already on this planet. We just have to sequence
everybody to see what’s there. AUDIENCE: Yeah,
but if the process is a purely
mechanical or chemical I don’t see a source
of randomness there. STEVE GULLANS: The
randomness is– well, could make it more frequent
with radiation and other things. It’s a thermal inactivity. It’s a mis-recognition
of the perfection. The idea is, an enzyme is
looking for a substrate. And apparently it gets it
right 99.9% of the time in finding the right substrate. JUAN ENRIQUEZ: And the nuance in
your article– in your comment is important because when
you look at DNA research by Ting Wu over at
Harvard is showing that there are highly
conserved sequences that are common to animals,
that are common to humans, that are common to plants. So there are certain
pathways, certain genes that are common across
various species. It means, if you get a
random mutation in that, likely the animal dies
or the plant dies. So some of the sources
of randomness– if you get radiation
and the radiation hits and splits your
DNA in a certain way, if a chemical comes in
and splices your chemical in a different way,
if the sun comes in, if alcohol comes in,
if tobacco comes in, if coal smoke comes in. So there’s a whole
series of things that are trying to rip
your DNA apart every day and your DNA is continuously
re-stitching and remaking itself. Right? And in a bunch of these places
those cuts are at random. If they’re cuts at random
in the wrong place, the organism will die
and not reproduce. STEVE GULLANS: You
get cancer, basically. AUDIENCE: So if you look at
the DNA as a closed system, there’s no– you’re
saying there would be no sources of
randomness in that case. STEVE GULLANS: If it
was 100 percent closed. But just a cosmic ray coming
in and hitting the DNA can actually cause a
single base to change. And that has to be repaired. And if it’s not
repaired properly– and so the point of
living to 100 is, this is happening every day,
every second in our bodies in every single cell. We’re trying to correct things. It is a very rare event
for these mutations to arise because we have so many
redundancies in the pathways. Not wholly closed. AUDIENCE: So my question
is, what sort of effects are humans having on the
random mutation side of things? Do we see a change in
random mutation rates? I mean, I could see things
being radiation or hormones. STEVE GULLANS: Well, that was
a piece of the last century. I mean, we were not
dummies when we figured out that asbestos, radioactivity, a
lot of toxins, DDT, et cetera, were causing outbreaks of
cancer and other diseases. And so they tended to be organ
specific because the toxin would accumulate there. Or with radiation. Or tended to be in cells
that reproduce quickly because the DNA was being
repaired all the time– or was more likely
to be changing. And so as we’re aware the
cancers were coming up. In terms of it being
random, there’s only one paper I know that
says that there is something about the process
that is not random, and it has to do with some
asymmetry about the enzymes. But in general people have
described it, since the 1920s and since including Mendel’s
ideas of genetic units or genes, that these are just
absolutely random processes. AUDIENCE: Is the amount–
so you said 100 per– STEVE GULLANS: Per generation
it ranges from 50 to 400 in different papers. AUDIENCE: Is it
going up or down? STEVE GULLANS: Well, that’s a
new paper that just came out a couple months ago from David
[INAUDIBLE] because that’s how we do our genetic
clocks and how long ago we separated from apes is based
on how many mutations they have relative to us. Now, if the clock was
400 per generation it’s a different time
period versus 100. So right now the
operating number is 100 until we get more data. AUDIENCE: This talks
started out by emphasizing that mutation is a very
important part of evolution, essential. I have some sort of– I may have
some sort of genetic mutation that has led me to be in
favor of nuclear energy. So I want to ask a question
about radioactivity, ionizing radiation,
and that is that life has evolved bathed
in radioactivity for billions of years
and therefore, one, life is very resistant to it. We have all these mechanisms
that are self-correcting and this error correction
that you mentioned. And also it seems like, without
all that ionizing radiation evolution certainly
wouldn’t have proceeded as quickly as it had. Does that sound right? STEVE GULLANS: That’s right. I mean, the earth is a
protected– relatively protected environment. Life first arose in
water where you actually have more protection. And there are enzymes that
actually repair and prevent– it’s actually an
oxidizing reaction that is result of radiation that
actually breaks the DNA and causes the problems. So we have lots of–
dealing with oxygen as well as radiation has been
something we’ve worked against. There is a species of
bacteria called– I forgot. Radians. JUAN ENRIQUEZ:
Deinococcus radiodurans. STEVE GULLANS: Yeah. It can handle a million full
bore radioactivity exposure than we can, simply by revving
up all of these mechanisms. And so there’s a yin
and yang play about, we need to adapt to
the current environment if the environment’s changing. We actually rev up these systems
to repair and to proliferate as a species, or any species. JUAN ENRIQUEZ: And we are
unfortunately out of time. So what we’d like
to do is just, you know– this is something for
all of you to think about. This is one of the most exciting
areas sitting out there. There are very few adventures
that are as important and will change
the world as much as understanding life code. So have fun with it. Guide it. Help us. Debate it. That’s partly why
we wrote this book. STEVE GULLANS:
One brief comment. You don’t need to
know any biology to read this book, by the way. It was written for
my kids and my wife, as well as for Juan’s
kids and his wife. JUAN ENRIQUEZ: Thank
you all very much. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]


  1. Michael Hasenstein said:

    At around @48:28 "I think we'll take out cancer in the next decade or two". Okay. The presentation was interesting at first but it became more and more unbalanced towards the end.

    April 19, 2015
  2. El Tuco said:

    Many valid points and well structured presentation.
    Where it unfortunately starts to go off piste is close to the start on the premise that humans are separate from nature, the notion that natural selection as a result of "random" mutations has been disrupted by humans.
    Consequently, about 90% of the content of this talk is flawed and inaccurate.
    Still, a very important speech which is part of the human evolution mentioned therein.
    Thank you Google Talks.

    April 20, 2015
  3. Juan Carlos Rodriguez Martinez said:


    April 20, 2015
  4. Magu Alejandro Agustín Baggio said:

    google: can u put good substitules, in english will be ok for me, is easy read than listend when u dont speak english. thanks

    April 22, 2015
  5. NetraAmorosi said:

    Side note North America did have native horses. The ancestors of Native Americans ended up hunting it to extinction.

    May 8, 2015
  6. Ian Doroteo said:

    I'm getting this book

    June 16, 2015
  7. AlekSensej said:

    25:04 That blows my mind.

    August 13, 2015
  8. shawna mahoney said:


    September 28, 2015
  9. John Smith said:

    Faulty dilemma about kids/immortality. Way it works is those who don't have (as many) kids surrender the earth to those who do.

    October 13, 2015
  10. Salt-Upon-Wounds said:

    6 am here and can't stop watching Ted and Google talks

    August 20, 2016
  11. just1certifiable said:

    Hard to believe he's still trying to tell us Darwin was right.. Hard to also believe the government propaganda and fear he's pushing in order to make people think they simply couldn't of made it this far if it wasn't for government and laws or science and chemicals in every single thing that is. So many chemicals killing the natural world the genetic engineers have had to create synthetic versions. So now we've got built in pesticide in the corn which continues producing pesticide in us, aborted fetal cells used for flavor enhancers or food, poop being turned into hamburger, cardboard tasteless fruits and vegetables which our bodies can't even recognize as food and weaponized wheat. This is the real reason so many are overweight. The human body is way overloaded by so many chemicals and the unnatural food which it cannot eliminate through the normal channels because of toxicity. In order to protect itself it creates fat to store the toxins away from the vital organs. He leaves out the part that we will now have to become homo evolutus, a synthetic version, mostly made of silicon and remotely controlled by an artificial intelligence. Yes, he said the scientists have the power to decide what lives or dies and by their standard that means everything natural has to go.

    November 12, 2016
  12. kanito said:

    Juan Mil gracias Thank you for coming out of common things and open our mind to understand better The Evolution

    December 21, 2016
  13. Nisa Khan said:

    I have seen the Google video.  While I agree that we have already changed our
    own species to some degree and more changes will come to us and other creatures
    through man-made evolution, I am not impressed by the presentations in the
    video.  Aside from biological and
    computer sciences, there are other areas of science that need to be taken into
    considerations.  Then there is basic
    human nature.  As of now, the
    uncontrolled and unknown parameters and events (what they refer to as random)
    are larger than ever with basic human nature unchanged.  These two factors alone may overthrow anything
    we or  machines will willfully or otherwise
    adopt, force, or what have you.  The two
    ugly human nature features are laziness and trying to make us look good in
    front of others' presence via deception.  These types of psychology and physiology have
    a lot to do with how we do our science, engineering, business and civic
    duties.  These are very strong driving
    factors in how we shape our world and how we mutate ourselves.  But Nature and Truth will always/ultimately
    win.  They always have.

    December 1, 2017
  14. Adil Mohsunov said:

    52:36 enzyme

    October 13, 2018
  15. Tübermensch said:

    One small step for man, one giant leap for the Übermensch.

    March 26, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *