A major scientific discovery can happen at any time and any place, according to Robert Dunn, author and associate professor of biology at North Carolina State University. That includes during a bathroom break in Cape Town, South Africa.
Dunn explained during his Nov. 5 talk at Elon University’s McCrary Theatre that a colleague of his found four new species of katydids, a type of cricket, in a bush where most wouldn't think to look.
“You can find them while peeing at a truck stop,” Dunn said. “The big takeaway is you don’t have to care about insects to know that what this means is that big discoveries are lurking all around us.”
Dunn’s talk, titled “Why Basic Ecology and Evolution Hold the Secrets to the Future of Medicine,” emphasized how persistent curiosity about the Earth and its organisms can lead to breakthroughs in the medical field.
And humans aren’t doing a great job of that so far, according to Dunn.
“We look back at the Dark Ages, and we laugh at those bozos like, ‘Oh man, he didn’t even cut the right parts out,’” Dunn said. “We’re still those bozos, but we’re just bozos about different stuff.”
Dunn said people assume our ancestors have already found the majority of available knowledge. Because of that mindset, people miss nearly everything. For more breakthroughs to occur, people have to assume nobody else knows about a potential discovery.
“We have this sense that we’re all born into,” Dunn said. “We think what we know now is most of everything we will ever know, when the truth is that what we know now is a teeny part of what we will ever know.”
There are 2 million named species in the world, with 6 million undiscovered species being a “conservative estimate,” according to Dunn. His estimate of the total number of species on Earth is a little more ambitious.
“I like to say there are 200 million species out there,” Dunn said. “Not because I think it’s true, but I think because [humans] are so stupid that no one can prove that it is wrong.”
Because of our difficulty naming all of the species around us, most available organisms can never enter the process of becoming useful, Dunn said. Even the most unassuming life forms can improve the human race down the road. They can even lead to a call from the CIA.
Dunn said a man with the CIA called him a few years ago asking if Dunn could tell where one of the samples of fungal DNA he was working on could be found based on what was inside it. Dunn eventually answered the question, but first, he had to ask a question of his own.
“I was like, ‘Is this really the CIA?’ Because I’m doing laundry,” Dunn said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s really us.’ So I said, ‘Ok, we’ll try,’ and it turns out we can find out where a sample of fungal DNA comes from within 100 kilometers based on which species are in it.”
The progress that has been made in Dunn’s field of ecology, the study of the interactions of organisms and their environment, has led to increased precision of forensic data. Greater knowledge of fungal DNA has helped predict myriad factors of the environment it comes from. If there’s a trace of fungi on a piece of evidence, it could lead to a breakthrough in the investigation.
“It can predict if things like cats or dogs are around, and all of this ends up being useful,” Dunn said. “Now this analysis is being used forensically, at least on TV, and we never thought we would get there. But it first required us to do the natural history and be open to its potential application.”
Dunn has written on the application of natural history in his three books, his most recent being “The Man Who Touched His Own Heart,” a book on the history of the heart and lingering questions about the vital organ.
“I read ["The Man Who Touched His Own Heart"] before his talk, and I really enjoy his perspective,” said senior Dana Willson. “I think we need to listen to what he said on how diverse education is today, and how we can use all of our different backgrounds to make more discoveries.”