Breaking New Ground for the Future of Medicine

Chris Mason
In this Big Think video, Chris Mason explains why our human future requires colonization of outer space.

When asked to name the person, alive or dead, with whom he’d most like to collaborate, Chris Mason – a biophysicist and expert in computational genomics – has a ready answer: “Isaac Asimov.” Why? “Because he’d help right away.”

This makes perfect sense for Chris, a “proud contributor to the 500-Year Plan” who is working with NASA to create the “metagenome” as part of the long-term survival of Earth’s inhabitants. A “systems thinker” who is, perhaps, best known for building the first genetic profile of a metropolitan transit system, created by collecting DNA swabs from the benches, turnstiles and handrails throughout New York City’s subway system, Chris characterizes multinomic data in a variety of environments, from cruise ships to Chernobyl-struck villages to outer space.

Understanding the collective microbiome has important implications for public health — past, present and future, Chris explains. His bacteria-collection project provided “a forensic ability to learn about the ancestry of the people who transit a station,” he said. The DNA people leave in their wake provides information about their ethnicity, the places they’ve visited, the illnesses they’ve had, even the foods they’ve eaten. This information can be used to predict and plan for challenges that lie ahead – on earth or elsewhere. “I am #BreakingThrough the central dogma of molecular biology, single-planet planning, and limits on DNA/RNA detection, function, & design,” Chris says.

Also focused on the mysterious frontier of bacterial life is Chris’s fellow speaker Ken Nealson, the Wrigley Chair of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California. Ken tells us that he is “#BreakingThrough by challenging current paradigms of microbial life via ground-breaking revelations of bacteria that ‘breathe rocks’ and ‘eat electrons.’” As a highly experienced senior scientist and mentor to many, Ken is at the forefront of electromicrobiology, a new branch of science that examines how bacteria produce and react to electricity, focusing on practical implications. “They turn out to have an incredible talent for sewage treatment, for example,” Ken says. “Stick an electrical anode in human waste and it attracts communities of bacteria that eat feces and breathe electrons. Hook them up to a fuel cell and you have a self-powered wastewater treatment system that produces significantly less sludge.”

Understanding these processes (which Ken and his team discovered) offers insights into challenges as disparate as toxic waste recycling, water reclamation, energy production, the control of harmful medical or dental biofilms, and even the search for extreme life. However, Ken sees one potential application as especially urgent: “My personal goal is developing these systems to a point where we could fly them into villages in the third world [so] people would bring their sewage to the treatment plant and get clean water, and you wouldn’t need any outside power.”

The human nervous system has super powers too, as it turns out. In our Catalyzing Great Science session, neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey, a pioneer in bioelectronics medicine (where molecular medicine, bioengineering and neuroscience converge), will share the frontiers of this new, hybrid field. Kevin’s unusual career path has produced a series of innovative discoveries, spawning clinical trials, start-up companies, and numerous accolades; right now, he says, he is “#BreakingThrough bioelectronic medicine by identifying mechanisms to exploit nerves to make drugs.”

Kevin is working on creating safe bioelectronics devices to replace the ineffective, toxic drugs used to treat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes and even cancer. The “aha” moment that introduced this possibility occurred when Kevin succeeded at using an electrode to stimulate a nerve to trigger an immune response to inflammation. “It was immediately clear that neural circuits reflexively control the immune system, and that by identifying and mapping these, it would be possible to develop bioelectronic devices to replace anti-inflammatory drugs,” Kevin says.

Asked how he keeps himself focused, energized and inspired to continually push the boundaries of what’s possible, Kevin told us that he regularly asks himself “What experiment can I do, right now, to help the most people tomorrow?”