December 14, 2018

Review: Life at the Speed of Light by J. Craig Venter

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Genetic engineering may well be the next big revolution of our age. Sparked with the discovery of the DNA double-helix by Watson and Crick in 1953, we may just now be on the edge of being able to custom tailor life.

And no one has been farther out on the cutting edge of that revolution than geneticist J. Craig Venter. This week, we take a look at Mr. Venter’s latest book, Life at the Speed of Light: from the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life out from Viking Press. Mr. Venter is the author of a Life Decoded and the CEO and founder of Synthetic Genomics Inc.

We’ve written on the ethics and dilemmas of genetics before, as well as the promise that the field holds. Life at the Speed of Light parallels the rapid advances in the field of genetics from the last few decades and how they have matched the growth of computing technology.

The author takes the reader from the early days of the discovery of DNA through the sequencing of the human genome in the last decade and beyond. Highlighted is the sequencing of the genome of the bacteriophage Phi X 174 by Fred Sanger and team back in 1977. Venter’s group announced that they had managed to artificially create this bacteriophage in 2003, the first time this feat had been accomplished. The study of using phages to combat infection holds great promise as we’re soon to be entering an era where antibiotics may no longer be effective to fight superbugs.

The author looks ahead towards some of the amazing implications that made-to-order life might have on the future of society as well. Perhaps carbon sequestering bacteria could be put to work removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, maybe even while reconverting it back to useful fuel as well. The rise of 3-D printing techniques holds great promise as well, and many early adopters are already toying with the idea of printing cells and living tissue. Soon, we may be able to custom design crops for disease resistance and high protein yields, doing away with nasty pesticides in the process. Vaccines can also be custom tailored to the next big outbreak before it hits, which is much more effective than the guessing game that often has to be played by researchers today.

We see promises waiting to be fulfilled by such technology in space exploration as well. For example, hardy food sources could be ready made for harsh environments, such as the planet Mars.  And rather than terraforming a new world, wouldn’t it be simpler and easier to change ourselves, or at least custom engineer humans to suit their environments? Sure, you might never be able to “shed the spacesuit” entirely, but custom-made phages could help repair DNA damaged by cosmic radiation…

Be sure to read Life at the Speed of Light for a fascinating look at the history of modern genetics and where we may be headed!

For another great read on the history of genetics pre-Watson and Crick, be sure to check out The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean.

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