I want you to touch your face. Go on. What do you feel? Soft? Squishy? It's you, right? You're feeling you? Well, it's not quite true. You're actually feeling thousands of microscopic creatures that live on our face and fingers. You're feeling some of the fungi that drifted down from the air ducts today. They set off our allergies and smell of mildew. You're feeling some of the 100 billion bacterial cells that live on our skin. They've been munching away at your skin oils and replicating, producing the smells of body odor. You're likely even touching the fecal bacteria that sprayed onto you the last time you flushed a toilet, or those bacteria that live in our water pipes and sprayed onto you with your last shower. Sorry.
You're probably even giving a microscopic high five to the two species of mites that live on our faces, on all of our faces. They've spent the night squirming across your face and having sex on the bridge of your nose. Many of them are now leaking their gut contents onto your pores.
Now look at your finger. How's it feel? Gross? In desperate need of soap or bleach? That's how you feel now, but it's not going to be how you feel in the future.
For the last 100 years, we've had an adversarial relationship with the microscopic life nearest us. If I told you there was a bug in your house or bacteria in your sink, there was a human-devised solution for that, a product to eradicate, exterminate, disinfect. We strive to remove most of the microscopic life in our world now. But in doing so, we're ignoring the best source of new technology on this planet. The last 100 years have featured human solutions to microbial problems, but the next 100 years will feature microbial solutions to human problems.
I'm a scientist, and I work with researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Colorado to uncover the microscopic life that is nearest us, and that's often in our most intimate and boring environments, be it under our couches, in our backyards, or in our belly buttons. I do this work because it turns out that we know very little about the microscopic life that's nearest us. As of a few years ago, no scientist could tell you what bugs or microorganisms live in your home—your home, the place you know better than anywhere else.
And so I and teams of others are armed with Q-tips and tweezers and advanced DNA techniques to uncover the microscopic life nearest us. In doing so, we found over 600 species of bugs that live in USA homes, everything from spiders and cockroaches to tiny mites that cling to feathers. And we found over 100,000 species of bacteria and fungi that live in our dust bunnies, thousands more that live on our clothes or in our showers. We've gone further still, and we looked at the microorganisms that live inside the bodies of each of those bugs in our home. In each bug, for example, a wasp, we see a microscopic jungle unfold in a petri plate, a world of hundreds of vibrant species. Behold the biological cosmos! So many of the species you're looking at right now don't yet have names. Most of the life around us remains unknown.
I remember the first time I discovered and got to name a new species. It was a fungus that lives in the nest of a paper wasp. It's white and fluffy, and I named it "mucor nidicola," meaning in Latin that it lives in the nest of another. This is a picture of it growing on a dinosaur, because everyone thinks dinosaurs are cool. At the time, I was in graduate school, and I was so excited that I had found this new life form. I called up my dad, and I go, "Dad! I just discovered a new microorganism species." And he laughed and he goes," That's great. I hope you also discovered a cure for it."
Now, my dad is my biggest fan, so in that crushing moment where he wanted to kill my new little life form, I realized that actually I had failed him, both as a daughter and a scientist. In my years toiling away in labs and in people's backyards, investigating and cataloging the microscopic life around us, I'd never made clear my true mission to him. My goal is not to find technology to kill the new microscopic life around us. My goal is to find new technology from this life that will help save us.
The diversity of life in our homes is more than a list of 100,000 new species. It is 100,000 new sources of solutions to human problems. I know it's hard to believe that anything that's so small or only has one cell can do anything powerful, but they can. These creatures are microscopic alchemists, with the ability to transform their environment with an arsenal of chemical tools. This means that they can live anywhere on this planet, and they can eat whatever food is around them. This means they can eat everything from toxic waste to plastic, and they can produce waste products like oil and battery power and even tiny nuggets of real gold. They can transform the inedible into nutritive. They can make sugar into alcohol. They give chocolate its flavor, and soil the power to grow.
I'm here to tell you that the next 100 years will feature these microscopic creatures solving more of our problems. And we have a lot of problems to choose from. We've got the mundane: bad-smelling clothes or bland food. And we've got the monumental: disease, pollution, war. And so this is my mission: to not just catalog the microscopic life around us, but to find out what it's uniquely well-suited to help us with.
Here's an example. We started with a pest, a wasp that lives on many of our homes. Inside that wasp, we plucked out a little-known microorganism species with a unique ability: it could make beer. This is a trait that only a few species on this planet have. In fact, all commercially produced beer you've ever had likely came from one of only three microorganism species. Yet our species, it could make a beer that tasted like honey, and it could also make a delightfully tart beer. In fact, this microorganism species that lives in the belly of a wasp, it could make a valuable sour beer better than any other species on this planet. There are now four species that produce commercial beer. Where you used to see a pest, now think of tasting your future favorite beer.
As a second example, I worked with researchers to dig in the dirt in people's backyards. There, we uncovered a microorganism that could make novel antibiotics, antibiotics that can kill the world's worst superbugs. This was an awesome thing to find, but here's the secret: for the last 60 years, most of the antibiotics on the market have come from similar soil bacteria. Every day, you and I and everyone in this room and on this planet, are saved by similar soil bacteria that produce most of our antibiotics. Where you used to see dirt, now think of medication.
Perhaps my favorite example comes from colleagues who are studying a pond scum microorganism, which is tragically named after the cow dung it was first found in. It's pretty unremarkable and would be unworthy of discussion, except that the researchers found that if you feed it to mice, it vaccinates against PTSD. It vaccinates against fear. Where you used to see pond scum, now think of hope.
There are so many more microbial examples that I don't have time to talk about today. I gave you examples of solutions that came from just three species, but imagine what those other 100,000 species in your dust bunnies might be able to do. In the future, they might be able to make you sexier or smarter or perhaps live longer.
So I want you to look at your finger again. Think about all those microscopic creatures that are unknown. Think about in the future what they might be able to do or make or whose life they might be able to save. How does your finger feel right now? A little bit powerful? That's because you're feeling the future.