Book Review: Life at the speed of light

To many science types, J. Craig Venter is the Justin Bieber of the biological sciences in the sense that most likely you just absolutely love him or absolutely hate him. I certainly admire his scientific productivity, the man gets things DONE. In 2008 he published his autobiography, “A Life Decoded“, which is an interesting read in itself; you’ll love it, it has science and gossip! His latest book is “Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life“. Another great read! from now on I will refer to is as LSL for short.

The book starts by narrating his experiences when giving a series of invited lectures at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, which in his mind and in the minds of many others paralleled a series of lectures given by Erwin Schrödinger, one of physics great minds and a Nobelist. Schrödinger’s lectures were published in book form as “What is life“, a work that influenced biological thinking in the 20th Century as acknowledged by many of its main protagonists including Crick and Watson of DNA fame as well as many other famous (and some infamous) biologists.

The first three chapters of LSL are an excellent introduction to the history of molecular biology, almost in the same order that is taught in virtually every biology textbook. Chapter 4 gives a condensed story of how Venter’s group sequenced a representative genome of a living organism for the first time ever and many of the technical hurdles that had to be overcome to make that happen, including a mention in passing of his role in the human genome project. Tellingly, he mentions by name one of his two main scientific rivals, James Watson, but not Francis Collins, the current NIH director. I am not surprised that he did not talk about Collins; Venter has no love lost for Collins. If you are interested, an account of this story can be read in “A life decoded“. Also, in this chapter you will find the “turning point” leading to the main topic of the book, namely what he calls the development of the first synthetic life form, a kind of exaggeration that he repeats throughout the book as we will see.

Chapters 5-7 narrate the story that culminated in chapters 8-9 where he describes the first cell with an artificial genome, a saga that took the better part of about 15 years. I do not want to give too many details away. However, it boils down to this: They synthesized an artificial genome from a type of small bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides and ‘installed’ in (it is much more complex than it sounds) in the genome-less cell body of a related species, Mycoplasma capricolum. The truly revolutionary thing is that the synthetic genome took control of the cell and rendered it capable of self-replication.

He shifts gears in chapters 10-12 describing modern advances in synthetic biology as related to computer modelling. For example, a Mycoplasma species related to the ones mentioned before requires 128 networked computers (!) to model. he also discuss biohackers and other aspects of the world that seems to be coming our way thanks to advances in molecular biology for good, bad or ugly.

Throughout the book, he kept referring to the “first synthetic organism”, etc., although he concedes that in strict terms it is not. After all, his achievement, as significant and important as it is, was more like changing the engine of a car rather than building the whole car from scratch (an analogy that he mentions explicitly). Moreover, we do not yet know how the engine (DNA) directs the workings of the cell as a whole.

Also, he liberally and frequently mentions Nobel Prize Winners who contributed to the development of chemistry and molecular biology. After a while, I noticed a pattern: “Prof. X got the Nobel Prize for Y”, almost as saying, “…well, I did A,B,C, etc., where’s my Nobel?” And you know what? He should get it.

He also mentions Isaac Asimov and Star Trek… (:-)…

One thing that I liked a lot about the story is that he gives credit where credit’s due. He seems to be very careful about acknowledging the contributions of others.

Only one typo that I could find! First paragraph of page 90: “The technique is easy in principal”. Nope, principle.

My favorite line of the book: “The future of biological research will be based to a great extent on the combination of computer science and synthetic biology”.

I am leaving behind many other things I want to say about the book, but I do not want to “reveal” too much, so I will leave you with this thought: A fascinating read. Take a look at it, you will not regret it.


Picture credit: Viking Books

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