The renowned scientist and author of A Life Decoded examines the creation of life in the new field of synthetic genomics
In 2010, scientists led by J. Craig Venter became the first to successfully create “synthetic life”—putting humankind at the threshold of the most important and exciting phase of biological research, one that will enable us to actually write the genetic code for designing new species to help us adapt and evolve for long-term survival. The science of synthetic genomics will have a profound impact on human existence, including chemical and energy generation, health, clean water and food production, environmental control, and possibly even our evolution.
In Life at the Speed of Light, Venter presents a fascinating and authoritative study of this emerging field from the inside—detailing its origins, current challenges and controversies, and projected effects on our lives. This scientific frontier provides an opportunity to ponder anew the age-old question “What is life?” and examine what we really mean by “playing God.” Life at the Speed of Light is a landmark work, written by a visionary at the dawn of a new era of biological engineering.
Venter (A Life Decoded), a field giant of genetics, makes a persuasive case that synthetic biology will help us understand, appreciate, and improve our own biology. The impatient genius who arrogantly raced the U.S. government to sequence the human genome, Venter scores many firsts in this emerging field, including the creation—nearly from scratch—of the first synthetic bacterium. It was not a pure first, as he used cytoplasm from an existing cell to boot up his synthetic genome—which only deviated slightly from the genome of an existing bacterium. But it’s a major coup; Venter’s synthetic genome successfully instructed the cell to create living proteins. We can now change the software of life, which then changes its own hardware, as it were. Venter shares spellbinding stories from the frontiers of genomics—researchers creating living toolboxes out of mechanisms co-opted from varied life forms. For the wary, he notes nature itself mixes and matches species-specific mechanisms: our own mitochondria were once bacteria engulfed by, and incorporated into, our cells. Gene engineering opens new portals of life-designing potential, he argues, and he champions ethics reviews of such work. Venter instills awe for biology as it is, and as it might become in our hands.