SciTech Now Episode 38

In this episode of SciTech Now, we meet wildlife cops on the Columbia River working hard to stop poachers from catching and killing valuable sturgeon; we ask a scientist “Does extinction matter?” We go “Inside the Lab” and visit a group of Central Florida engineers who are building a flight simulator; Hari Sreenivasan sits down with MIT Professor Manolis Kellis to discuss this human epigenome; and we meet an expert at the American Museum of Natural History who explains the mysterious phenomenon dark energy.

TRANSCRIPT

COMING UP, ANCIENT SPECIES IN PERIL.

'WE USED TO CATCH FISH HERE ALL THE TIME.

ALL WE'RE FINDING IS SHAKERS OR THE UNDERSIZE.'

TO US, THAT SENDS OFF A RED FLAG BECAUSE WE KNOW THAT THERE SHOULD BE FISH HERE, AND SO WE KNOW THAT WE'RE MISSING SOMETHING.

THE NEW ENGINEERING BEHIND PILOT TRAINING.

BY INTEGRATING THE VIRTUAL REALITY WITH THE MOTION, IT ALLOWS THE USER TO OPERATE THE TRAINING DEVICE FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME WITHOUT GETTING DISORIENTED.

THE NEXT GREAT LEAP SINCE MAPPING THE HUMAN GENOME.

A BIOMARKER CAN TELL YOU THAT, OKAY, THAT DRUG IS ACTUALLY HELPING YOU REMEDY YOUR, YOU KNOW, THE STATE OF YOUR CELLS, WHICH CAN BE REFLECTED IN YOUR EPIGENOME.

AND THE MYSTERIOUS PHENOMENON OF DARK ENERGY.

AND IT TURNS OUT THAT THE EQUATIONS OF GENERAL RELATIVITY NATURALLY ADMIT AN ACCELERATED UNIVERSE FILLED WITH ENERGY, AND THAT ENERGY GOT THE LABEL STUCK ON IT, AND WE CALL IT DARK ENERGY.

IT'S ALL AHEAD.

FUNDING FOR THIS PROGRAM IS MADE POSSIBLE BY THE CORPORATION FOR PUBLIC BROADCASTING AND CONTRIBUTIONS TO THIS STATION.

HELLO. I'M HARI SREENIVASAN.

WELCOME TO 'SciTech NOW,' OUR WEEKLY PROGRAM BRINGING YOU THE LATEST BREAKTHROUGHS IN SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND INNOVATION.

LET'S GET STARTED.

THE COLUMBIA RIVER CUTTING 1,200 MILES THROUGH WASHINGTON AND OREGON IS THE FOURTH LARGEST RIVER IN AMERICA.

BENEATH THE SURFACE OF THIS MIGHTY RIVER SWIMS A MIGHTY FISH, THE WHITE STURGEON.

IT'S THE LARGEST FRESHWATER FISH ON THE CONTINENT, BUT THESE INCREDIBLE CREATURES ARE THE TARGET OF POACHERS WHO WANT THEIR EGGS FOR HIGHLY COVETED CAVIAR, PUTTING THE SPECIES IN PERIL.

OUR ENVIRONMENTAL NEWS PARTNER, EARTHFIX, HAS THIS REPORT.

[ SIREN WAILS ]

IT'S A HIGH-SPEED PURSUIT IN AN UNLIKELY PLACE -- THE COLUMBIA RIVER.

STOP! STOP!

NO! STOP!

WILDLIFE COPS ARE CHASING DOWN A BIG PROBLEM -- POACHERS CATCHING AND KILLING GIANT STURGEON, PUTTING THE WHOLE POPULATION OF THESE FISH AT RISK.

OREGON AND WASHINGTON WILDLIFE OFFICERS ARE ON PATROL IN THE COLUMBIA RIVER ABOVE BONNEVILLE DAM.

THEY'RE CHECKING TO MAKE SURE THE FISHERS HERE ARE CATCHING STURGEON WITHIN THE LEGAL SIZE LIMIT.

KEEPING FISH THAT ARE TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL IS POACHING.

ANY FISH?

YEAH, I GOT TWO.

PERFECT.

THE OFFICERS SAY STURGEON NUMBERS ON THE RIVER HAVE BEEN DROPPING, AND IT'S UNCLEAR EXACTLY WHY.

THEY SUSPECT POACHING IS PART OF THE PROBLEM, AND THEY'RE DOING THEIR PART TO STOP IT.

RIGHT HERE.

WITH THE TAPE LAYING UNDERNEATH, IT'S GONNA GIVE YOU THE STRAIGHTEST LINE, BUT THAT IS -- THAT IS RIGHT THERE 39.

THAT'S THE LEGAL MEASUREMENT.

STURGEON ARE SLOW-GROWING FISH.

IT TAKES THEM 20 YEARS TO REACH MATURITY AND START REPRODUCING.

BY THEN, THEY'RE MORE THAN FIVE FEET LONG.

FISHING RULES ARE DESIGNED TO PROTECT THE BIGGER FEMALE FISH THAT CARRY THE EGGS, CRUCIAL TO THE FUTURE OF THE STURGEON POPULATION.

BUT THOSE EGGS ARE ALSO A DELICACY, PRIZED AS SOME OF THE WORLD'S FINEST CAVIAR.

AS STURGEON POPULATIONS DECLINE WORLDWIDE, THE MARKET FOR ILLEGAL CAVIAR IS GROWING.

OFFICIALS SAY THEY'RE SEEING SIGNS THAT DEMAND IS DRIVING POACHERS TO THE COLUMBIA RIVER.

PEOPLE SAYING, 'HEY, WE'RE NOT FINDING FISH ANYMORE.

WE USED TO CATCH FISH HERE ALL THE TIME.

ALL WE'RE FINDING IS SHAKERS OR THE UNDERSIZE.

WE'RE NOT SEEING OVERSIZE FISH ANYMORE.'

TO US, THAT SENDS OFF A RED FLAG BECAUSE WE KNOW THAT THERE SHOULD BE FISH HERE, AND SO WE KNOW THAT WE'RE MISSING SOMETHING.

BUT HOW COULD THE COPS BE MISSING PEOPLE POACHING STURGEON THAT ARE MORE THAN FIVE FEET LONG?

WILDLIFE COPS SAY POACHERS USE A COMMON TACTIC TO SNEAK ILLEGAL STURGEON OUT OF THE RIVER.

THEY TAKE IT TO A SECLUDED STRETCH OF THE RIVER AND TIE IT TO THE BANK.

THEY KEEP THE FISH ALIVE AND HIDDEN UNDERWATER, THAT WAY IT'LL STAY FRESH WHILE THEY LOOK FOR A BLACK-MARKET BUYER.

THEN THEY WAIT UNTIL NIGHTFALL TO SNEAK BACK TO THE RIVER AND RETRIEVE THE FISH.

POACHERS HOPE TO GET LUCKY AND FIND A GIANT STURGEON FULL OF EGGS.

STURGEON EGGS MAKE VERY EXPENSIVE CAVIAR, AND THE BIGGEST STURGEON CAN CARRY UP TO 100 POUNDS OF EGGS.

AT $25 A POUND, THE EGGS FROM ONE FISH CAN SELL FOR $2,500.

ONCE THEY'RE PROCESSED INTO CAVIAR, THOSE EGGS CAN SELL FOR A WHOPPING $200 AN OUNCE.

THAT'S $3,200 A POUND.

THAT MEANS THE BIGGEST STURGEON COULD ULTIMATELY BE WORTH MORE THAN $300,000.

TRIBAL FISHERMAN CLIFFORD SHIPPENTOWER SAYS HE KNOWS SOME PEOPLE ARE POACHING STURGEON, AND IT HURTS HIS BUSINESS AND HIS FAMILY TRADITION.

I COME FROM A BIG FISHING FAMILY, AND IT'S -- SINCE BEING FROM THE COLUMBIA RIVER, I GOT ANCESTORS THAT'S BEEN HERE FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS THAT DID THE SAME THING.

IT'S THE BIG RIVER.

SHIPPENTOWER SAYS IT'S WORTH IT FOR HIM TO FOLLOW THE RULES.

HE CATCHES LEGAL-SIZE FISH AND SELLS THEM TO FISH MARKETS, WHERE THEY'RE CUT UP INTO FILLETS.

HE WORRIES POACHERS COULD ULTIMATELY RUIN HIS FISHERY.

JUST HOPE THAT THE FISH, YOU KNOW, DON'T GET TOO DEPLETED WHERE WE CAN'T FISH FOR THEM ANYMORE.

MITCH HICKS IS A CHIEF OF ENFORCEMENT FOR THE COLUMBIA RIVER TRIBES.

HE HAS A STRATEGY FOR CATCHING STURGEON POACHERS.

THIS AREA RIGHT HERE IS WHERE WE HAVE FOUND OVERSIZED STURGEON BEFORE.

THEY'VE BEEN TIED WITH ROPES AND ATTACHED TO THE SHORELINE HERE.

WE HAVE A HIGH CLIFF HERE.

WE HAVE SOME DEEP WATER.

IT'S SECLUDED.

SO IF WE WERE DOING A ROUTINE PATROL, YOU KNOW, WE WOULD BE RUNNING OUR BOAT FAIRLY CLOSE TO THE SHORE LOOKING FOR LINES, CABLES, ANYTHING THAT WOULD LOOK OUT OF PLACE.

POLICE HAVE ALSO TRIED ANOTHER TACTIC TO CATCH POACHERS -- GOING UNDERCOVER AND PRETENDING TO BE ONE OF THEM.

SO YOU DON'T JUST WALK DOWN TO THE COLUMBIA RIVER AND START BUYING ILLEGAL FISH.

YOU KNOW, YOU HAVE TO DEVELOP A RELATIONSHIP.

PEOPLE HAVE TO BE COMFORTABLE WITH YOU, AND YOU NEED TO KNOW WHEN YOU NEED TO BE THERE.

IN 2007, WILDLIFE ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS ORGANIZED A STING TO CATCH POACHERS SELLING ILLEGAL FISH.

THEY CAUGHT 33 PEOPLE IN THE ACT.

THERE WERE 19 TRIPS THAT WERE CENTERED AROUND TRYING TO BUY ILLEGAL-SIZED FISH.

AND OUT OF THOSE 19 TRIPS, 17 SOLICITATIONS WERE SUCCESSFUL.

THAT'S HIGH ODDS THAT TRAFFICKING IS OUT OF CONTROL.

AS FOR THESE POACHERS, THEY WERE ARRESTED, AND THE CASE IS PENDING.

[ SIREN WAILS ] OFFICERS SAY THEY'RE LOOKING OUT FOR THE FISH THAT HAVE LIVED ON THE RIVER FOR HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF YEARS.

STURGEON, TO ME, ARE LIKE AN OLD GROWTH TREE, THAT THEY'RE NOT JUST A FISH THAT, WELL, YOU TAKE ONE, YOU CAN GROW ANOTHER ONE.

I MEAN, THESE STURGEON ARE SLOW, SLOW-GROWING AND NEED TO BE VALUED.

AND THEY'RE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR ANYONE WHO'S PUTTING THESE ANCIENT FISH AT RISK.

SO, WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT LIFE ON EARTH, WE OFTEN THINK ABOUT HOW IT ORIGINATED 3 1/2 BILLION YEARS AGO AND HOW WE'VE HAD HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF SPECIES ORIGINATE SINCE THEN.

BUT WE ALSO THINK ABOUT EXTINCTION.

WE KNOW THAT THE TRILOBITES, THE AMMONITES, THE DINOSAURS ARE ALL GONE, RIGHT?

WE ALSO KNOW NOT TOO LONG AGO, WE LOST THE DODO, WE LOST THE PASSENGER PIGEON, AND TODAY PEOPLE ARE CONCERNED THAT WE'RE LOSING MAYBE HALF OF OUR MILLIONS OF SPECIES IN THE NEXT 50 YEARS.

SO, IT SEEMS LIKE EXTINCTION AND ORIGINATION OCCUR AT THE SAME TIME.

SO WHY IS EXTINCTION SUCH A WORRY IF THEY BOTH OCCUR AND WE SEEM TO SURVIVE IT?

WELL, TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION, WHAT SCIENTISTS HAVE DONE IS SET UP A BUNCH OF EXPERIMENTS IN WHICH THEY'VE TAKEN ECOSYSTEMS AND HAVE DELIBERATELY REMOVED SPECIES FROM THEM AND WATCH WHAT HAPPEN.

WHAT THEY DISCOVERED IS REALLY QUITE INTERESTING.

THERE ARE TWO THINGS THAT HAPPEN.

ONE IS THAT THE ECOSYSTEMS ARE NOT VERY PRODUCTIVE, BUT THE OTHER THING IS THAT THEY'RE NOT VERY STABLE.

AND THE REASON THAT'S OF CONCERN IS BECAUSE WE DEPEND ON ECOSYSTEMS FOR THINGS LIKE POTABLE WATER, BREATHABLE AIR, STABLE SUPPLIES OF FOOD FROM OUR MARINE AND TERRESTRIAL ECOSYSTEMS, THE RESISTANCE TO DISEASE, PEST OUTBREAKS, AND POLLINATION -- MANY, MANY, MANY OTHER SERVICES.

SO, IF OUR ECOSYSTEMS ARE BECOMING LESS PRODUCTIVE AND LESS STABLE, THAT'S OF CONCERN.

THE GOOD THING IS, WE ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO FIX THIS.

IT'S JUST A LITTLE DIFFICULT TO GET IT GOING FAST.

BEING AN AVIATION ENTHUSIAST CAN BE EXHILARATING AND OFTENTIMES EXPENSIVE, BUT NOW A GROUP OF ORLANDO ENGINEERS IS DEVELOPING A LOW-COST FLIGHT-TRAINING SIMULATOR THAT COULD CHANGE THE WAY PILOTS TAKE TO THE SKIES.

WE GO INTO THE LAB TO GET THE STORY.

[ ENGINE TURNS OVER ]

THERE ARE NEARLY 620,000 FAA CERTIFIED PILOTS IN THE U.S.

THAT MAY SOUND LIKE A LOT, BUT SINCE 1980, THE NUMBER HAS DROPPED BY 25%, WHILE THE POPULATION HAS GROWN 40%. ONE REASON IS THE EVER-INCREASING EXPENSE OF TRAINING.

IT NOW COSTS ABOUT $10,000 TO OBTAIN A PRIVATE PILOT'S LICENSE, THE MOST COMMON CERTIFICATION.

A GROUP OF YOUNG CENTRAL FLORIDA ENGINEERS IS DEVELOPING A FLIGHT SIMULATOR THAT MAY HELP CHANGE THAT.

THE NAME OF OUR SIMULATOR IS THE IFS EAGLE.

IT STANDS FOR IMMERSIVE FLIGHT SIMULATOR.

THE SIMULATOR IS A NEW, GROUNDBREAKING FLIGHT-TRAINING DEVICE THAT BRIDGES THE GAP BETWEEN PERSONAL-COMPUTER TRAINERS AND REALLY EXPENSIVE, BULKY, FULL-FLIGHT SIMULATORS.

BRANDON AND HIS PARTNERS ARE USING OFF-THE-SHELF HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE BUT COMBINING THEM IN A NOVEL FASHION.

WHAT'S NEW ABOUT THE SIMULATOR IS THAT WE'RE INTEGRATING NEW VIRTUAL REALITY TECHNOLOGY THAT JUST HIT THE MARKET.

IT'S AFFORDABLE, IT'S IMMERSIVE, AND IT'S HIGH-DEFINITION.

VIRTUAL REALITY APPLICATIONS HAVE BEEN USED FOR YEARS, BUT THE VISUAL PERCEPTION OF MOTION WITHOUT THE RIGHT PHYSICAL SENSATIONS OFTEN CAUSES NAUSEA AND OTHER UNPLEASANT EFFECTS.

BY INTEGRATING THE VIRTUAL REALITY WITH THE MOTION, IT ALLOWS THE USER TO OPERATE THE TRAINING DEVICE FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME WITHOUT GETTING DISORIENTED.

THE TALON SIMULATOR OFFERS TWO MAJOR ADVANTAGES OVER EXISTING FLIGHT SIMULATORS.

THIS IS A PORTABLE FULL-MOTION SIMULATOR.

USUALLY A FULL-MOTION SIMULATOR WOULD FILL THIS WHOLE HANGAR WITH THE EQUIPMENT, AND THEY'RE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.

TALON'S PRODUCT IS PRICE-RANGED ABOUT $20,000 AND IT'S COMPLETELY PORTABLE.

A FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, IF HE'S PORTABLE, WOULD BE ABLE TO PACK UP THE SIMULATOR, TAKE IT TO A DIFFERENT AIRPORT, SET UP IN ABOUT 30, 45 MINUTES.

SO, THE POTENTIAL IS THERE, AND HE CAN MOVE AROUND TO TWO OR THREE AIRPORTS IN ONE DAY.

THE SIMULATOR IS ALSO DESIGNED TO MAKE THE TRAINING PROCESS MORE EFFICIENT FOR ASPIRING PILOTS.

IT REALLY IMMERSES THEM IN THE AERIAL ENVIRONMENT SO THAT YOU CAN REDUCE ANXIETY WHEN YOU GET INTO THE AIRCRAFT.

YOU LEARN PROCEDURES AND POLICIES ON THE GROUND, THAT WAY YOU CAN MAXIMIZE YOUR TIME UP IN THE PLANE.

THE PROJECT ORIGINATED WHILE THE PARTNERS WERE STILL UNDERGRADS.

THE SIMULATOR ALL BEGAN FOR OUR MECHANICAL SENIOR DESIGN PROJECT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA.

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE CLASS STARTED, WE PUT TOGETHER A TEAM.

WE FOUND SOME FUNDING, AND WE GOT THE IDEA APPROVED.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE PROJECT -- IT WAS RELEVANT TO TODAY'S TECHNOLOGIES AND TRAINING OPPORTUNITIES FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO DO SOME PILOT TRAINING.

I HAVE A PILOT'S LICENSE MYSELF, AND I COULD RELATE TO THEIR PROJECT, SO I WAS ABLE TO GIVE THEM EVEN BETTER INPUTS AND FEEDBACK.

SINCE COMPLETING COLLEGE, THE TALON PARTNERS HAVE CONTINUED TO REFINE THE SIMULATOR.

THESE ARE A.C. INDUCTION MOTORS AND ARE DRIVEN BY FREQUENCY DRIVE AMPS, AND THAT WAS A DIFFERENT MOTOR CONTROL THAN WHAT OUR VERY FIRST PROJECT WAS.

THIS IS MORE OF AN INDUSTRIAL APPLICATION FOR HIGH FIDELITY, SO IT'S A LOT MORE, A HIGHER RELIABLE SYSTEM.

WE'LL BE ADDING MORE DEGREES OF ADJUSTABILITY TO OUR SIMULATOR WITH OUR NEXT PROTOTYPE, AND THAT WILL INCLUDE ADJUSTABILITY WITH THE LEGS, WITH THE YOKE MOUNT, AND WITH THE THROTTLE QUADRANT, AS WELL AS WHERE THE SEAT WILL BE POSITIONED.

BUT AS WITH ALL GREAT IDEAS, THE ROAD FROM PROTOTYPE TO COMMERCIAL PRODUCT IS A LONG AND ARDUOUS JOURNEY.

TALON IS A PART OF A UCF PROGRAM THAT AIMS TO TRANSFORM PROMISING STUDENT PROJECTS INTO VIABLE BUSINESS ENTERPRISES.

IT'S PART OF THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION INNOVATION CORPS PROGRAM.

IT'S A 10-WEEK COURSE.

EVERY WEEK, WE GO AND TALK TO CUSTOMERS AND REPORT OUR FINDINGS BACK TO THESE INSTRUCTORS, WHO CRITIQUE US AND HELP US LEARN THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THINGS, WHICH HAS BEEN REALLY BENEFICIAL FOR A GROUP OF ENGINEERS WHO HAVE LITTLE TO ZERO KNOWLEDGE ON THAT.

JUST KIND OF TEACHES US ENGINEER STUDENTS TO VENTURE OUT AND GO TALK TO PEOPLE AND NETWORK AND GET A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE.

AS PART OF THAT OUTREACH, THE TALON TEAM ATTENDS PUBLIC EVENTS, LIKE OTRONICON AT THE ORLANDO SCIENCE CENTER.

WE'RE COLLECTING DATA BASICALLY ON WHO WAS RIDING IT, THE AMOUNT OF PEOPLE, THEIR AGE GROUP, AND THE EXPERIENCE, WHETHER THEY'RE A PILOT OR NOT, AND THEN THE AMOUNT OF KNOWLEDGE, IF ANY, THAT THEY WERE DEVELOPING FROM IT.

WE HAD 460 PEOPLE USE IT WITH ONLY 3% OF PEOPLE GETTING ANY SORT OF NAUSEA.

20% OF THEM ACTUALLY ENDED UP BEING PILOTS, SO IT WAS REALLY BENEFICIAL TO GET THEIR FEEDBACK.

IF THESE YOUNG ENGINEERS CAN REACH THE END OF THEIR LONG ROAD, THEIR SIMULATOR COULD HAVE A MAJOR IMPACT.

IT HAS POTENTIAL TO REVOLUTIONIZE THE INDUSTRY OF FLIGHT SIMULATION.

ANY INDIVIDUAL THAT IS TRYING TO OBTAIN A PILOT'S LICENSE OR MORE TRAINING, IT WILL MAKE THAT TRAINING THAT MUCH MORE AFFORDABLE AND MORE PEOPLE WILL BE MORE INTERESTED IN GETTING THE PILOT'S LICENSE.

THE TALON ENGINEERS SEE THEIR MISSION IN EVEN LOFTIER TERMS.

FOR THE FUTURE, I'M REALLY HOPING TO SEE US GROW INTO THE NEXT GENERATION OF SIMULATION AND TRAINING.

WE REALLY WANT TO BE A PART OF THE GROWTH OF INDUSTRY, AND WE WANT TO SAVE LIVES AND CHANGE LIVES.

SOME OF US MAY BE A LITTLE RUSTY ON OUR HIGH-SCHOOL BIOLOGY.

FORTUNATELY, THERE ARE PEOPLE LIKE OUR NEXT GUEST WHO HAVE DEVOTED THEIR LIVES TO UNDERSTANDING IT AND TO DRIVING THE DISCIPLINE FORWARD.

MANOLIS KELLIS, A COMPUTATIONAL BIOLOGIST AND PROFESSOR AT M.I.T., HAS CONTRIBUTED TO A PIONEERING EFFORT HAILED AS THE GREATEST SCIENTIFIC LEAP SINCE THE MAPPING OF THE HUMAN GENOME.

HE JOINS ME NOW.

SO, YOU'RE AN EPIGENOMICIST.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

I'M A PROFESSOR OF COMPUTER SCIENCE AT M.I.T., AND I STUDY THE HUMAN GENOME.

THE REASON WHY I BECAME AN EPIGENOMICIST IS BECAUSE THE EPIGENOME IS A CENTRAL PART OF UNDERSTANDING THE HUMAN GENOME.

WHAT IS THE EPIGENOME?

SO, THE EPIGENOME CAN ONLY BE UNDERSTOOD IN THE CONTEXT OF THE GENOME.

SO, THE GENOME ITSELF IS THE BOOK OF LIFE.

IT CONTAINS THREE BILLION LETTERS OF A,C,G,T PUT END TO END IN 23 CHROMOSOMES, BUT IT DOESN'T COME WITH AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL.

IT COMES, HOWEVER, WITH THE ABILITY TO MARK OUT DIFFERENT REGIONS, AND THAT'S WHAT DIFFERENT CELLS DO.

SO, EVERY CELL HAS EXACTLY THE SAME COPY OF A BOOK OF LIFE, AND THAT BOOK IS EFFECTIVELY AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL THAT TELLS EVERY CELL IN THE BODY ALL OF THE INSTRUCTIONS THAT IT'S GOING TO NEED THROUGHOUT ITS LIFETIME.

THE EPIGENOME IS EFFECTIVELY THE MARKINGS THAT BRING THE GENOME TO LIFE THAT ALLOW IT TO BE DYNAMIC FROM CELL TO CELL AND TO ACTUALLY CARRY OUT A MYRIAD OF FUNCTIONS OF THE HUMAN BODY.

SO, IF THE EPIGENOME HELPS US FIGURE OUT WHY A BONE CELL BECOMES A BONE CELL AND A HEART CELL BECOMES A HEART CELL AND A BRAIN CELL BECOMES A BRAIN CELL, WHAT DO WE GAIN FROM MAPPING THAT?

THE FIRST REASON WHY THE EPIGENOME IS SO IMPORTANT IS BECAUSE IT ACTUALLY TELLS US WHERE ARE THE GENES, WHERE ARE THE CONTROL SWITCHES THAT TURN GENES ON AND OFF, AND WHERE ARE THE DIFFERENT CLASSES OF FUNCTIONAL ELEMENTS THAT ARE ENCODED IN A HUMAN GENOME.

THE SECOND REASON IS THAT IT ACTUALLY ENCODES ADDITIONAL INFORMATION.

SO, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, THE THREE BILLION LETTERS OF THE HUMAN DNA IS NOT ALL THE INFORMATION WE GET.

WE ACTUALLY HAVE ADDITIONAL INFORMATION THAT IS ENCODED WITHIN THESE CHEMICAL MODIFICATIONS BOTH OF THE DNA AND OF THE PACKAGING OF THE DNA.

AND THESE CHEMICAL MODIFICATIONS SOMETIMES ENCODE ENVIRONMENTAL STIMULI THAT HAVE PERHAPS ALTERED THE FUNCTIONS OF OUR GENES -- WHEN IT'S COLD OR WARM, WHEN IT'S -- YOU KNOW, WHEN YOU'RE RUNNING.

YOUR EPIGENOME ACTUALLY CAPTURES SOME OF THE INFORMATION ABOUT THE SET OF GENES THAT NEED TO BE TUNED TO ACTUALLY MATCH YOUR ENVIRONMENT.

AND THE THIRD REASON IS BECAUSE THE EPIGENOME IS, IN FACT, ALTERED IN THE CONTEXT OF HUMAN DISEASE.

SO, IF I HAVE CANCER, FOR EXAMPLE, OR IF I HAVE ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE, MY EPIGENOME IS ACTUALLY UNDERGOING ALTERATIONS THAT ARE SOMETIMES INFORMATIVE AS TO HOW THE DISEASE IS PROGRESSING OR WHAT ARE THE GENES THAT ARE BEING MOST AFFECTED BY THE PROGRESSION OF THE DISEASE.

AND THEREFORE MAPPING THE EPIGENOME CAN GIVE THIS INFORMATION ABOUT THE STATE OF OUR CELLS DURING THE DISEASE PROGRESSION.

DOES THAT MEAN THAT I COULD CREATE A DIFFERENT TYPE OF DRUG TO ATTACK THE DISEASE, OR DOES THAT MEAN THAT I COULD CREATE A GENE THERAPY?

NUMBER ONE, IT CAN GIVE YOU HINTS AS TO WHAT ARE THE IMPORTANT GENES THAT SHOULD BE TARGETED.

NUMBER TWO, IT CAN SERVE AS SOMETHING KNOWN AS A BIOMARKER.

A BIOMARKER IS A PIECE OF INFORMATION THAT TELLS YOU WHETHER A DRUG IS PROGRESSING IN ITS FUNCTION OR NOT.

EVEN THOUGH THE DISEASE MIGHT TAKE YEARS TO REMEDY ITSELF WHEN YOU'RE TAKING A DRUG, A BIOMARKER CAN TELL YOU THAT, OKAY, THAT DRUG IS ACTUALLY HELPING YOU REMEDY YOUR, YOU KNOW, THE STATE OF YOUR CELLS, WHICH CAN BE REFLECTED IN YOUR EPIGENOME.

SO, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU MAKE THIS ROADMAP PUBLIC?

IN THE SAME WAY THAT THE HUMAN GENOME WAS A REFERENCE THAT ENABLED HUMAN GENETICS TO TAKE THE NEXT STAGE TO BASICALLY START THINKING OF THE ENTIRE GENOME SIMULTANEOUSLY, TO START SYSTEMATICALLY MAPPING THE MOLECULAR BASIS OF HUMAN DISEASE THROUGH THE USE OF GENETICS BY UNDERSTANDING VARIATION, GENETIC VARIATION, GENETIC DIFFERENCES, BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS AND HOW THEY MAP TO WHETHER YOU HAVE A DISEASE OR NOT -- IN THE SAME WAY, WE THINK OF THIS REFERENCED HUMAN EPIGENOME MAP AS A PUBLIC GOOD, AS SOMETHING THAT SHOULD BE IN THE HANDS OF EVERY RESEARCHER OUT THERE.

AND THIS HAS ALREADY LED TO MANY PUBLICATIONS FROM PEOPLE THAT ARE UNRELATED TO THE CONSORTIUM WHO BASICALLY WENT OFF, DOWNLOADED THESE DATA SETS, AND THEN USED THEM IN THEIR OWN RESEARCH.

SO WE BELIEVE THAT THIS EPIGENOME MAP WILL BE A VERY VALUABLE RESOURCE THAT WILL BASICALLY ALLOW US TO TAKE THE HUMAN GENOME TO THE NEXT STAGE BUT ALSO SERVE AS A REFERENCE FOR STUDIES OF EPIGENETIC VARIATION BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS AND IN THE CONTEXT OF DISEASE.

ALL RIGHT, MANOLIS KELLIS FROM M.I.T., THANKS SO MUCH.

IT'S A PLEASURE.

UP NEXT, WE SIT DOWN WITH AN EXPERT AT THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY WHO GIVES US AN OVERVIEW OF THE MYSTERIOUS PHENOMENON OF DARK ENERGY.

MY NAME IS MORDECAI-MARK MAC LOW, AND MY POSITION IS CURATOR OF ASTROPHYSICS.

IN THE LAST CENTURY, WE HAVE LEARNED THAT THE UNIVERSE HAS EXPANDED AND THAT THE STUFF THAT IT IS MADE OF IS PRIMARILY NOT NORMAL MATTER.

IT'S PRIMARILY SOMETHING THAT WE HAVE CALLED DARK MATTER AND SOMETHING ELSE THAT WE ARE CALLING DARK ENERGY.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT DARK ENERGY?

SO, THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE IS EXPANDING.

THERE'S A LOT OF MASS IN IT.

IF THE DENSITY IS ABOVE SOME THRESHOLD, THE UNIVERSE COULD GO OUT AND COME BACK IN, AND THE UNIVERSE WILL END IN FIRE.

CONVERSELY, IF THE DENSITY IS UNDER THAT THRESHOLD, THE UNIVERSE WILL KEEP GOING OUT, EVER DECELERATING AND EXPANDING AND IT WILL END IN ICE.

SO PEOPLE TRY TO DETERMINE WHAT THE BEHAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE ACTUALLY WAS.

WAS IT DECELERATING SLOWLY OR SO QUICKLY THAT IT WOULD TURN AROUND AND CRUNCH?

BY THE 1990s, BY LOOKING OUT TO GREAT DISTANCES AND MEASURING THE VELOCITIES OF THE GALAXIES THEY FOUND THERE, PEOPLE HAD FOUND A WAY OF MEASURING THE DECELERATION, AND THEY DID THIS BY USING A CERTAIN KIND OF SUPERNOVAE CALLED TYPE 1A SUPERNOVAE.

THESE TYPE 1A SUPERNOVAE ALWAYS HAVE THE SAME BRIGHTNESS OR, AT ANY RATE, CAN BE CALIBRATED TO MEASURE THEIR BRIGHTNESS.

SO, LOOKING FOR THESE SUPERNOVAE OUT ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, A LOT OF MEASUREMENTS OF HOW FAST THE UNIVERSE IS DECELERATING.

AND A GRADUATE STUDENT, WHO THIS PROJECT WAS HIS DISSERTATION, FINALLY SAID, 'WELL, WE'VE GOT ENOUGH SUPERNOVAE TO MAKE A FIRST MEASUREMENT.

LET'S PUT THEM TOGETHER AND FIND OUT HOW FAST THE UNIVERSE IS DECELERATING.'

SO, HE TAKES ALL THE MEASUREMENTS, CALCULATES THEM, MEASURES THE RATE OF DECELERATION, AND MUST HAVE GOT SOMETHING WRONG, BECAUSE HE GETS A NEGATIVE DECELERATION, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS AN ACCELERATION, WHICH NOBODY ASKED FOR, NOBODY EXPECTED.

WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?

WELL, OBVIOUSLY THE FIRST ANSWER WAS, 'OH, I MADE A MISTAKE IN MY CALCULATIONS,' SO HE GOES AND SHOWS IT TO HIS THESIS ADVISER AND THE WHOLE GROUP, AND THEY ALL BASICALLY REFUTE THE CALCULATIONS AND SAY, 'THERE, THERE, WE'LL TAKE CARE OF IT.'

BUT, OF COURSE, DOESN'T GO AWAY, AND EVENTUALLY THEY HAVE TO SAY, 'LOOK, THE UNIVERSE ISN'T DECELERATING.

IT'S ACCELERATING.'

AND IT TURNS OUT THAT THE EQUATIONS OF GENERAL RELATIVITY NATURALLY ADMIT AN ACCELERATED UNIVERSE FILLED WITH ENERGY, AND THAT ENERGY GOT THE LABEL STUCK ON IT, AND WE CALL IT DARK ENERGY.

THERE ARE ABOUT SIX DIFFERENT MEASUREMENTS THAT ALL INDEPENDENTLY MEASURE THE STRENGTH OF THE DARK ENERGY.

SO, WE KNOW PRETTY WELL THAT IT DOES EXIST, AND NOW WE'RE TRYING TO MEASURE WAS THE STRENGTH OF THE DARK ENERGY ALWAYS THE SAME AS THE UNIVERSE EXPANDED?

BECAUSE IF IT CHANGED OVER TIME, THAT WOULD BE A BIG INDICATOR OF WHAT KIND OF THING IT MIGHT BE.

SATELLITES LIKE WFIRST IN THE U.S. AND EUCLID IN EUROPE, GROUND-BASED TELESCOPES ARE GOING TO MEASURE THAT FAIRLY PRECISELY.

THEN WE'LL STEP BACK AND SEE WHAT WE'VE GOT.

AND THAT WRAPS IT UP FOR THIS TIME.

FOR MORE ON SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND INNOVATION, VISIT OUR WEBSITE, CHECK US OUT ON FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM, AND JOIN THE CONVERSATION ON TWITTER.

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UNTIL NEXT TIME, I'M HARI SREENIVASAN.

THANKS FOR WATCHING.

FUNDING FOR THIS PROGRAM WAS MADE POSSIBLE BY THE CORPORATION FOR PUBLIC BROADCASTING AND CONTRIBUTIONS TO THIS STATION.