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29 May 2014

978 1 40870 524 7
Little, Brown
GBP 20.00

Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life

J. Craig Venter

Love him or loathe him, it’s hard not to stop and listen to J. Craig Venter. His new book is captivating and essential for those interested in synthetic biology; for lay people, students and academic researchers alike. Venter’s thesis is that to understand life we must build it. He explains how this is now possible through our ability to read and write DNA, the code of life. Of course, this raises ethical issues, which Venter touches on. However, largely he explores possibilities for the new technology of synthetic genomics, such as radioing the blueprint for a synthetic organism, and even for human beings, to someone/thing on a distant planet to build.

Of course, Venter was the face and driving force behind the privately funded effort to sequence the human genome in the late 1990s, and, more recently, the claims in the scientific and popular press to have created synthetic life. His first book, an autobiography called A Life Decoded, plotted Venter’s life up until and including the race to the human genome. Its final chapter touched on synthetic genomics, which the new book picks up on and runs with in some fascinating directions. If, like me, you had certain issues with the first book – as one review stated, it was both “engrossing and exasperating” – don’t be put off and do try this new book, which is equally engrossing and considerably more modest.

In Life at the Speed of Light, Venter’s thesis is really quite simple: we have the tools to both read and synthesize the code of life, so why not give it a go? Indeed, he goes further and suggests that we have an obligation to do this, as we would pass over more opportunities for the future of the human race if we did not do it. Further still, he asks: why stick to synthesizing life on this planet?

Although not written formally in this way, the book is effectively in three parts: The first is rather historical, laying out Venter’s own view on the origins of the field. He starts with Schrödinger’s question, lecture series and book: What is Life?. Then he describes how our molecular and now digital understanding of life developed over the intervening 70 years. You can find much of this elsewhere of course, but Venter’s account is worth plodding through.

What appealed to me in particular was the start of this section, which describes the origins of modern organic chemistry and the death of vitalism. Indeed, the concept of ‘proof by synthesis’ is central to Venter’s thesis and current work, as I am sure it is to many synthetic biologists. Another way to put this of course is through Feynman’s oft-quoted epitaph, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” This is not only a good and welcome start to the book, it also provides insight on Venter’s own motivations.

The middle part details Venter’s own brand of synthetic biology, synthetic genomics. Before I review this aspect of the book, here’s my own description of this subfield: synthetic genomics aims to create synthetic versions of whole chromosomes and genomes, replete with watermarks, fail-safe mechanisms, replaced and repurposed suppressible stop codons, or whatever the designer chooses, and boot them up inside cells or protocells. It is founded on technologies advanced significantly over the last two decades that bring abilities to (i) sequence DNA from almost any source rapidly, reliably and cheaply; (ii) construct genomes in silico using bioinformatics; and (iii) synthesize large segments of DNA chemically and then to piece them together like Lego®.

This section describes how the various genome-sequencing attempts and eventual successes led to the idea of synthesizing and booting up a whole genome. I enjoyed this account, and it dispels certain urban myths and misrepresentations. That said, and as with his previous book, the section is full of self-assurance, conviction and unabated self-belief that Venter is right and that his team will succeed in the goal of producing functional genomes to order, and taming them for useful purposes. Given Venter’s character, past, and keenness to take on anyone, this confidence isn’t a surprise, and it will be an asset in driving forward synthetic genomics.

This brings me to the last section of the book. These chapters deal with synthetic biology more generally, application areas, and associated ethical issues. The last points are brushed aside somewhat, and the focus returns to synthetic genomics and Venter’s latest ventures on beaming DNA code around the globe and into space. Analogies with and inspiration from Star Trek and Asimov aside, I found this visionary. Venter articulates ideas for using synthetic genomics to generate rapid-response vaccines and virus-based medicines. As well as being laudable, these are plausible goals: with the ambition and strength of Venter and co. behind them they might just become genuine lifesavers.

Like most books, Life at the Speed of Light has its failings: Venter repeats himself a fair bit. I can see some readers tiring of the historical perspectives. While others (non-specialists) may struggle to hurdle the chemical and biochemical detail in places; indeed, I felt that much of the experimental detail in the central part of the book could have been cut. My main gripe, however, is the focus on synthetic genomics alone. Synthetic biology is much more than this plus protocells, and in many respects, the other subfields are a lot less controversial than Venter’s own work portrays. For instance, considerable advances are being made by taking synthetic biology approaches to metabolic engineering and biomolecular design, which could have been mentioned.

So, and here’s the rider: this is not a non-technical primer for synthetic biology. It is an account of the origins, workings and potential of one aspect of the field. These shortcomings aside, this is a superb and well-articulated book that I thoroughly recommend to all interested in or engaged with synthetic biology; indeed, I’d say that it is essential reading for many such people.

Dek Woolfson (University of Bristol, UK)

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