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TED Talks and DNA

One of the most fun and exciting sources of information available for free on the internet are the videos found on the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) website. TED is a hub of stories about innovation, achievement and change, each artfully packaged into a short, highly accessible talk by an outstanding speaker.

As of April 2015, the TED website boasts 1900+ videos from some of the most eminent individuals in the world. Selected speakers range from Bill Clinton and Al Gore to Bono and other global celebrities to a range of academics experts.

Each tells a unique story; TED is famous for being the home of ‘ideas worth spreading’. Since the TED Conference started in 1984 it is possible to track how ideas emerge. TED is a litmus test of what is intellectually and culturally ‘scorching hot’.

Who can forget the first time they saw Hans Gosling talk world-shaping statistics by showing his moving bubble plots, like the relationship between life-expectancy and income for countries across the world? It is a TED legend along with these ‘must see’ and ‘most viewed’ talks.

So, what does TED have to say about DNA?

James Watson talks about his Nobel Prize winning discovery of the Double Helix. Craig Venter talks about sampling the ocean’s DNA. Svante Pääbo talks about our inner Neanderthal DNA. Paul Rothmund talks about DNA origami, using computers to design strands of DNA that act as tools. Gabriel Barcia-Colombo talks about his art, which now includes a DNA vending machine, an outgrowth of his fascination with how easy it is to extract DNA from his friends at his dinner parties.

These are just the TED talks with “DNA” in the title. Digging a little deeper reveals a larger library of talks.

“DNA research is pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge on a daily basis. DNA-ideas are emerging that are worth spreading.”

Craig Venter talks about creating synthetic life and the birth of his artificial microbe “Synthia”. Hendrik Poinar details how cloning could bring back the woolly mammoth as part of the TedxDeExtinction Conference, the field of reanimating lost genomes through the technologies of cloning and synthetic genomics.

Jack Horner talks about how we sadly won’t be de-extincting dinosaurs, or even reading their DNA (because the half-life of DNA is too short) but how he is doing the next best thing of uncovering dinosaur genes in modern dinosaurs – chickens. Called genetic atavisms, genes for traits like teeth can be uncovered and he explains how he tells the kids he is trying to turn chickens into T. Rex’s.

Juan Enriques, genomic futurist, talks about bioliteracy and how ‘the life code’ of genomics is set to change society. He believes genomics will lead to the emergence of ‘Homo evolutis’, part human, part bio-machine, part cyber-being; our kids might be a wholly new species.

Rob Knight explains how our microbiome, our ‘second genome’, the trillions of microbes that live in an on us, makes us who we are. John Wilbanks talks about a brighter future where we pool medical information, including genomic information, to improve human health. Emma Teeling talks about how understanding the secrets of the bat genome help us understand our own.

DNA is woven into a range of other talks. Sugata Mitra talks about his TED Prize wish to build a School in the Cloud based on his experiments of leaving computers with children in remote India and documenting how impressively they self-teach. Trying to prove there are limits to his ‘hands off’ didactic method, he fills his computer with content that is ‘too hard’ – DNA biotechnology. His kids absorb the knowledge.

DNA even appears in symbolic form. David Eagleman talks about creating new human senses and curing deafness with vests that translate speech into digital signals that are sensed on users’ backs. The top half of his opening slide depicts the cosmos and the bottom half the DNA helix.

These and other talks illustrate how DNA is spreading through TED, as a result of its invasion of global science and culture.

TED is an indicator of the arrival of an idea. It is therefore interesting to speculate on what the next big DNA-flavoured TED talks might be.

Researchers working on DNA today could all fire off long lists of potential speakers and topics, attesting to the rapid pace of advance in this field and the magnitude of the societal impacts. Everyone will have their favourites but an obvious choice for already completed work is the story of the discovery of the gene editing system, CRISPR-CAS, by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. In 2015 they shared the Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences and are strong candidates for a Nobel Prize.

The point is that there are so many worthy discoveries and speakers. DNA research is pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge on a daily basis. DNA-ideas are emerging that are worth spreading.

TedMed, the Ted conference dedicated to medicine, is filled with further talks of the DNA kind, like that of George Church describing genomic technology, its future and the Personal Genome Project.

Perhaps, one day a TedDNA Conference that brings together all aspects of DNA research will be on the cards.

Featured image credit: Back-lighting in the auditorium, by Steve Jurvetson. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Ron

    “some of the most imminent individuals in the world” Does this mean they haven’t actually been born yet?

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