all the information, none of the junk | biotech • healthcare • life sciences

A Thousand Microbes in Your Mouth and Other Scenes From the 2010 TEDMED Conference

The TEDMED conference, with its two-hour sessions of engrossing 15-minute presentations on medical technology, education, and design, returned this week to the San Diego area’s famed Hotel del Coronado. Like its progenitor, the annual TED conference in Long Beach, the four-day TEDMED event cultivates an aura of exclusivity by mixing talks from celebrities, prominent CEOs, and famous scientists and technologists—and by charging attendees $4,000 apiece to enjoy the show.

Each series of talks is grouped around a general theme, but the overall effect tends to be impressionistic. So keeping in the spirit, here are some rapid-fire impressions of the TEDMED presentations yesterday afternoon.

—Motivational speaker Tony Robbins is huge!—especially when he’s standing next to the diminutive TEDMED founder Richard Saul Wurman. At 6-feet, 7-inches, Robbins is not just tall—he is clearly some kind of power weight lifter. He could probably bench press 750 pounds. Robbins, whose seminars urge audiences to “Take Charge of Your Life” and “Overcome Any Challenge,” informs the sellout crowd that it is Wurman’s 75th birthday. Robbins asks the audience to acknowledge the inspiration Wurman has provided the world, and they respond with a standing ovation.

—J. Craig Venter, the human genome pioneer and founding CEO of San Diego-based Synthetic Genomics, tells the audience that most humans are born without any microrganisms in their body, but we acquire them very quickly. Scientists estimate that the average human has 1,000 unique j-craig-ventermicrobial species in their mouth, 1,000 in the intestinal tract, 500 in the vagina, and 200 on the skin (mostly on the hands and forearms). “You can’t understand human biology without understanding what all these organisms do,” Venter says. For example, Venter says each human has the ability to make about 500 different chemicals in our blood that circulate throughout the body, including the brain. About 10 percent of these are bacterial metabolites. Another 30 percent are from the food we eat, and 60 percent are from our own metabolic processes.

—Juan Enriquez, managing director of Boston’s Excel Venture Management, makes the argument, drawn from a soon-to-be-published book with co-author Steve Gullans, that humans are evolving from Homo sapiens to Homo evolutus, a hominid that directly and deliberately controls the evolution of its own and other species. “We’re moving from reading the life code to writing the life code, and that is a very different circumstance,” says Enriquez, who urges the audience to think about what it means to “upgrade our species.”

A Sugar Glider

A Sugar Glider

—-Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, begins his talk by saying, “A chimpanzee virus killed 25 million people. That’s why I’m here.” In fact, Daszak says HIV/AIDS is only one example of a number of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans today. Daszak, a disease ecologist, says approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans originated in wild or domestic animals. Bats, for example, carry rabies, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), Ebola, and the coronavirus. The scariest animal on the planet, Daszak says, is not a Bengal tiger, but the “sugar glider,” an adorable, bug-eyed marsupial with a long tail that glides from tree to tree. “I’m most afraid of this particular little animal, because the people are going into the forests of Indonesia to catch them, bring them into captivity, and ship them around the world—straight into our homes, where we hold them, kiss them, and cuddle up to them,” he says. “What easier way could there be for any one of this species’ 100 new viruses to spread to humans?”