One of the highlights at TEDMED for me was meeting and hearing from Chris Mason, PhD, a Weill Cornell Medical College researcher in epigenetics. This is my field of study, so I was excited to talk to someone deeply involved in the world of genomics. Mason was an engaging and fast talking speaker, with a great sense of humor. And I soon discovered that, while he was doing the same sort of work and analysis that I was doing, his samples are incredibly unique.
While I work on primary cell types across the human body, Mason has interesting questions about the microbiome surrounding our body. The cells that make up the microbiome actually outnumber human cells ten times over – and scientists are increasingly gaining an understanding of how the microbiome, individual and personal to each and every person, can have a unique impact on human health and wellness. Mason, knowing this, began to look for interesting and unique ones that could tell us about how these microbiomes could be enhanced and utilized for improving our human lives.
Mason sequenced microbial cells that were gathered from subway riders around the world, and he discovered that about half of the cells discovered were not known microbial species. Literally under our feet, as Mason puts it, there is a world of diversity to explore and the possibility of discovering new antibiotics and cures to disease. But then Mason also went in the other direction – up! – and collected samples from astronauts in space. Now he has access to more than 8,000 samples of astronaut samples (let your imagination wander on what they saved) for a study of the human body in extreme environments.
During Mason’s talk on the last day of the conference, provocatively described by TEDMED organizers as a discussion of how his work is being done “in the interest of humanity’s interplanetary survival,” he touched on the subway experiments as well as the astronaut work, and then tied it all together by talking about the future of humanity. For Mason, an understanding of biology, both microbial and human, is the natural next step in humans’ progress to the stars and beyond. Genetic engineering is already here and will continue to grow as a technology, and he suggested we use it to extend our reach to the moon and beyond. The microbiome could be altered to protect us from UV radiation in space or to help us adapt to new planets, for example. Think of it as an astronaut suit, but biological, he suggested.
Mason’s thoughts may be controversial, depending on what you think about genetics, but he has clearly thought very hard about what new biological technologies mean for humanity’s future. It’s unknown whether the future will develop as Mason has envisioned it, but his work will likely be influential nonetheless.