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TED@IBM

Simone Bianco and Tom Zimmerman: The wonderful world of life in a drop of water

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"Hold your breath," says inventor Tom Zimmerman. "This is the world without plankton." These tiny organisms produce two-thirds of our planet's oxygen -- without them, life as we know it wouldn't exist. In this talk and tech demo, Zimmerman and cell engineer Simone Bianco hook up a 3D microscope to a drop of water and take you scuba diving with plankton. Learn more about these mesmerizing creatures and get inspired to protect them against ongoing threats from climate change.

- Cell engineer
A theoretical physicist by training, IBM's Simone Bianco believes that the 21st century will be the century when the synergy between AI and biology will be fully realized. Full bio

- Master inventor
Tom Zimmerman is a master inventor at IBM Research – Almaden exploring the frontiers of human-machine interaction and environmental sensing. Full bio

Tom Zimmerman: We'd like to take you
on a fantastic journey
00:12
to visit the creatures we call the Elders.
00:16
We call them the Elders
because a half a billion years ago
00:19
they tripled the amount
of oxygen in the air,
00:23
which led to an explosion of life,
00:26
which led to all of us.
00:29
We call them the Elders,
but you probably know them as plankton.
00:31
(Laughter)
00:35
Now, Simone is a physicist,
and I'm an inventor.
00:36
A couple of years ago,
00:41
I was giving a talk
about an invention I made --
00:43
it was a 3D microscope.
00:45
And Simone was in the audience.
00:46
He realized that my microscope
could solve a big problem he was having.
00:49
Which was, how to measure the movement
of plankton in 3D fast enough
00:53
so he could mathematically model
their sensing and behavior.
00:58
And I frankly needed an application
for my microscope, so ...
01:03
(Laughter)
01:07
It was like peanut butter meets chocolate.
01:08
(Laughter)
01:10
So we started working together,
studying these amazing creatures.
01:12
And then we were alarmed
to discover something.
01:16
And that's why we're here today.
01:19
And I just want to do something with you.
01:21
Now, please, just hold
your breath for a second.
01:24
Yes, literally hold your breath.
01:28
This is the world without plankton.
01:29
You see, plankton generate
two-thirds of our oxygen using the sun.
01:33
OK, now you can breathe,
because they're still here.
01:37
For now.
01:41
Simone Bianco: As many of you know,
01:43
since 1950, the average
surface temperature of the earth
01:45
has increased by one degree Centigrade
01:48
due to all the carbon dioxide
we are pumping into the air.
01:50
Now, while this temperature increase
may not seem like a big deal to us,
01:54
it is to plankton.
01:58
Indirect measurements have shown
that the global phytoplankton population
01:59
may have decreased by as much
as 40 percent between 1950 and 2010
02:04
because of climate change.
02:09
And you see, this is a problem
02:11
also because it's starving
the fish that eat them.
02:12
And about a billion people
around the world
02:16
depend on fish as their primary source
of protein from animals.
02:18
So you see, this isn't just
about breathing.
02:23
No plankton means no fish.
02:25
And that is a lot of food
we will need to replace.
02:27
There's something else
that is interesting.
02:31
The bodies of plankton's ancestors
02:33
actually make up a for lot
of the carbon we burn today.
02:35
Which is kind of ironic, if you ask me.
02:38
Because the plankton that are here today
clean that carbon out of the air.
02:41
But you see, they don't really
hold a grudge.
02:46
(Laughter)
02:48
The problem is they cannot keep up
02:50
with the tremendous amount
of carbon we are dumping into the air.
02:52
So what does all of this mean?
02:57
Well, it means
that our big carbon footprint
02:58
is crushing the very creatures
that sustain us.
03:01
And yes, like Tom said,
03:04
killing almost half of the creatures
that allow us to breathe
03:06
is a really big deal.
03:09
So you're probably asking yourself:
03:11
Why aren't we doing something about it?
03:13
Our theory is that plankton are tiny,
03:16
and it's really, really hard to care
about something you cannot see.
03:19
You see, there's a quote I really like
in "The Little Prince" that goes,
03:23
"What is essential
is invisible to the eye."
03:26
We really believe
that if more people could come
03:29
face to ... cilia with plankton,
03:32
there is a greater chance
we could all rally together
03:36
and save these creatures
03:39
that are so important
to life on our planet.
03:40
TZ: Exactly, Simone.
03:42
So to do this,
03:44
we're going to bring you
scuba diving with plankton.
03:45
But I just need to shrink you
by a factor of 1000,
03:51
to a scale where the diameter
of a human hair is as big as my hand.
03:54
And I happen to have invented
a machine to do just that.
03:59
SB: Anyone here remember
"Fantastic Voyage"
04:03
or "Innerspace?"
04:06
Yeah, yeah.
04:08
Martin Short is one of my all-time
favorite actors.
04:09
And now this -- this is just like that.
04:13
TZ: Indeed, yes.
04:16
When I was a boy,
I saw "Fantastic Voyage,"
04:17
and I really loved how I could travel
through the bloodstream
04:19
and see biology work on a cellular level.
04:23
I've always been inspired
by science fiction.
04:26
As an inventor, I try
and turn fantasy into reality.
04:28
And I once invented this glove
04:32
which let me travel and help
people like you explore the virtual world.
04:35
So now I've invented this machine
04:40
to let us explore the microscopic world.
04:42
It's not virtual, it's real.
04:45
Just really, really tiny.
04:47
It's based on the microscope
that got Simone's attention.
04:49
So, here's how it works.
04:52
I have an image sensor
04:54
like the kind in your cell phone,
behind the lens.
04:56
And then I have a little tray
of plankton water
04:59
like you might find from a river
05:01
or my fish tank, which I never
change the water on.
05:03
(Laughter)
05:05
Because I love plankton.
05:07
(Laughter)
05:08
And underneath I have a light, an LED,
05:11
which is going to cast shadows
of the plankton on the image sensor.
05:15
And now this silver thing
is an XY plotter,
05:19
so I can move the image sensor
to follow the plankton as they swim.
05:22
Now comes the fantasy part.
05:27
(Laughter)
05:30
I put a tilt sensor on this helmet
05:32
so I can control
the microscope with my head.
05:35
And now let's look at the video
from this image sensor.
05:39
These are all plankton.
05:44
This is in that little tray,
05:46
and with my head,
I can move the microscope.
05:48
So now we're ready
to go scuba diving with plankton.
05:53
My head will be the navigator,
05:56
and Simone will be our tour guide.
05:59
SB: Yes.
06:01
(Laughter)
06:02
So welcome all to the wonderful world
of life in a drop of water.
06:03
Actually, as you can see,
06:07
with this instrument, we are not
at all limited to a single drop.
06:09
Alright, let's find something.
06:13
The little creatures you see
in the center of your screen,
06:15
they are called rotifer.
06:18
They are the garbage collectors
of our waters.
06:19
They break down organic matter
06:22
and allow it to be reclaimed
by the environment.
06:24
Now, you know,
nature is an amazing recycler.
06:27
Structures are continuously built,
they are decomposed and recycled,
06:30
and all of that is powered
by solar energy.
06:34
But just think.
06:37
Think about what will happen
if, you know, our garbage collectors
06:38
didn't come anymore, if they disappeared.
06:42
Something else?
Let's look for something else.
06:45
Oh, look at that.
06:47
You see the big
ice-cream-cone-shaped things?
06:48
Those are called Stentor,
those are amazing creatures.
06:52
You know, they are big,
but they are a single cell.
06:55
You remember the rotifer we just met?
06:58
That's about half a millimeter,
it's about 1,000 cells --
07:00
it's typically 15 for the brain,
15 for the stomach
07:04
and you know, about the same
for reproduction,
07:08
which is kind of the right mix,
if you ask me.
07:10
(Laughter)
07:13
But ... right?
07:14
TZ: I agree.
07:16
SB: But a Stentor is only a single cell.
07:17
And it's able to sense
and react to its environment.
07:19
You see, it will swim forward
when it's happy;
07:22
it will swim backward when it's trying
to get away from something
07:25
like, you know, a toxic chemical.
07:28
With our friends in the Center
for Cellular Construction
07:30
and the help of the National
Science Foundation,
07:33
we are using Stentor to sense the presence
of contamination in food and water,
07:36
which I think is really cool.
07:40
Alright, last one.
07:42
So the dots that you see there
that are, let's say, behind everything,
07:43
they're algae.
07:47
They are the creatures that provide
the majority of oxygen in the air.
07:48
They convert solar light
and carbon dioxide
07:53
into the oxygen that is filling
your lungs right now.
07:56
So you see, we all got algae breath.
07:59
TZ: (Exhales)
08:01
SB: Yay! (Laughter)
08:02
You know, there's something interesting.
08:03
About a billion years ago, ancient plants
got their photosynthesis capability
08:05
by incorporating tiny,
tiny plankton into their cells.
08:10
That's exactly like us putting
solar panels on top of our roofs.
08:14
So you see, the microscopic world
is even more amazing than science fiction.
08:19
TZ: Oh, indeed.
08:23
So now you've seen
how vital plankton are to our lives
08:24
and how much we need them.
08:28
If we kill the plankton, we will die
08:30
of asphyxiation or starvation,
take your pick.
08:33
Oh, yes, I know it's sad, yes.
08:37
(Laughter)
08:39
In the game of plankton,
you win or you die.
08:40
(Laughter)
08:44
Now, what amazes me is,
we have known about global warming
08:47
for over a century.
08:53
Ever since the Swedish
scientist, Arrhenius,
08:55
calculated the effect
of burning fossil fuel
08:57
on the earth's temperature.
09:00
We've known about this for a long time,
but it's not too late if we act now.
09:02
Yes, yes, I know, I know,
our world is based on fossil fuels,
09:07
but we can adjust our society
to run on renewable energy from the Sun
09:11
to create a more sustainable
and secure future.
09:16
That's good for the little creatures
here, the plankton,
09:19
and that good for us -- here's why.
09:21
The three greatest concerns
of people all around the globe
09:25
typically are jobs, violence and health.
09:28
A job means food and shelter.
09:32
Look at these creatures,
they're swimming around,
09:34
they're looking for a place
to eat and reproduce.
09:36
If a single cell is programmed to do that,
09:39
it's no surprise that 30 trillion cells
have the same agenda.
09:42
Violence.
09:48
Dependence on fossil fuels
makes a country vulnerable.
09:49
Which leads to conflicts
all around the oil resources.
09:54
Solar energy, on the other hand,
is distributed around the whole globe,
10:00
and no one can blockade the sun.
10:03
(Laughter)
10:06
And then, finally, health.
10:07
Fossil fuels are like a global cigarette.
10:10
And in my opinion,
coal is like an unfiltered type.
10:13
Now, just like smoking,
the best time to quit is when?
10:18
Audience: Now.
10:22
TZ: Now! Not when you get lung cancer.
10:24
Now I know if you look around,
some people may abandon facts and reason.
10:26
Only until suffering --
10:32
(Laughter)
10:34
Yes, they will abandon facts and reason.
10:35
But suffering will eventually
and inevitably force change.
10:38
But let's instead use
our neocortex, our new brain,
10:43
to save the Elders, some of the oldest
creatures on the earth.
10:47
And let's apply science
to harness the energy
10:50
that has fueled the Elders
for millions of years --
10:54
the sun.
10:59
Thank you.
11:01
(Applause)
11:02

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About the speakers:

Simone Bianco - Cell engineer
A theoretical physicist by training, IBM's Simone Bianco believes that the 21st century will be the century when the synergy between AI and biology will be fully realized.

Why you should listen

Simone Bianco, PhD, is research staff member and IBM rock star at IBM Research – Almaden, where he leads the Cellular Engineering group. He's passionate about making biology a quantitative science by using tools from mathematics, physics, engineering and computer science. He believes this interdisciplinary approach will not only impact biological and medical fields but also will advance biologically inspired engineering and computer science. His research spans many scientific fields, from genomic and evolutionary biology to bioengineering, epidemiology, statistical physics and computer science. 

Bianco studied physics at the University of Pisa, Italy, the school of Galileo Galilei and Enrico Fermi, and he got his PhD from the University of North Texas. He held research appointments at the College of William and Mary and at the University of California San Francisco. Bianco is a founding principal investigator of the Center for Cellular Construction, an NSF funded multi-institution initiative which aims to build self-organized devices from living organisms.

More profile about the speaker
Simone Bianco | Speaker | TED.com
Tom Zimmerman - Master inventor
Tom Zimmerman is a master inventor at IBM Research – Almaden exploring the frontiers of human-machine interaction and environmental sensing.

Why you should listen

Tom Zimmerman has more than 60 patents on user input devices, wireless communication, image and audio signal processing, biometrics, encryption and microscopy. His Data Glove and PowerGlove inventions helped establish the field of virtual reality. His electric field Personal Area Network invention sends data through the human body, and it can prevent airbags from injuring children in cars. Zimmerman's environmental work includes research on the yaw stability of wind turbines and solar thermal storage at MIT, and building wireless sensors to monitor sea turtles in the US and Costa Rica.

Zimmerman is currently developing AI-powered microscopes to monitor plankton in their natural environment and studying the response of plankton to toxins in his work with the Center For Cellular Construction. He supports the DIY community through articles in Make Magazine and his passion for volunteering in the public schools earned him the California Medal for Service from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver.

More profile about the speaker
Tom Zimmerman | Speaker | TED.com