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Our Invisible Neighbors: Rick Stevens @ TEDxNaperville

By Rob Mitchum // March 7, 2013

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

Leonardo da Vinci never gave a TED talk, but if he did, that quote from around the beginning of the 16th century might have been a good tweetable soundbite. Five centuries later, da Vinci’s statement still holds true, and it was there for CI Senior Fellow Rick Stevens to pluck as the epigraph for his talk in November 2012 at the TEDxNaperville conference. Stevens used his 18 minutes on the TED stage to talk about the Earth Microbiome Project, an international effort “to systematically study the smallest life forms on earth to build a comprehensive database to capture everything we can learn about these organisms.”

Stevens talks about how little we know about the estimated 1 billion species of microbes on Earth (“In one kilogram of soil there are more microbes than there are stars in our galaxy,” he says), and how citizen science, high-throughput genomics and supercomputing are coming together to finally reveal this vast ecosystem — a process he likens to reconstructing the front page of the newspaper using only the firehose of Twitter and Facebook posts. In 5-10 years, Stevens says, microbiology will finally exceed astronomy, with enormous implications for our understanding of the world around us.

You can watch video of Stevens’ talk below:

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