It is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of Europeans who lived in the great age of discovery—when bold explorers set out across the oceans in pursuit of unknown lands, and those fortunate enough to survive brought back word of vast swaths of terra nova. Again and again it turned out that the world was larger, more varied, and more mysterious than anyone imagined. The “new” continents had always been there; they had simply been unknown to the West.
We generally think that this age is over, and that, even if there still is a great deal we don’t understand about how nature works, we at least have a pretty good catalogue of what there is to examine in our world. We tend to assume that any truly new ground to discover will come from humanity’s exploration of space.
But every now and then we are shown the limits of this attitude. Like old European schoolmasters smugly confident in their maps, we overestimate our knowledge and underestimate the earth’s vastness and variety. These days, such lessons in humility are most often delivered by our oceans. The waters that the explorers of the age of discovery saw as standing between them and their terra nova turn out to be filled with previously unimagined secrets, and among them quite a bit we still don’t know about biological life on this planet.
The latest reminder comes the old-fashioned way: from a long and arduous sailing expedition. Craig Venter, best known as a pioneer in the study of the human genome, has led a crew on a 6,000-mile voyage, collecting water samples on the way and studying the microbial life they contain. The first batch of results, published this week, is a treasure trove of discoveries. The team found an astonishing variety of previously unknown proteins and DNA sequences—actually doubling the number of protein sequences known to exist—as well as what appears to be a previously unknown means of generating energy from light, different from the photosynthesis of green plants. If this first publication is any sign, the results of the voyage will add enormously to our catalog of mysteries about the earth.
In time, researchers will try to find ways to put the new discoveries to use, pursuing medical applications or trying to figure out how bacteria might be used as fuels. For the moment, though, the study gives us a reason to pause and appreciate how little we really know about our world.