December 6, 2013

In May 2010, a team of scientists announced that they had created synthetic life. The researchers had used four bottles of chemicals to build an entire bacterial genome from scratch, then transferred this artificial chromosome into a cell from another species of bacteria. Then, as lead researcher J. Craig Venter explains it, the team “booted up the chromosome.” The lab-made DNA — which included several coded messages spelling out the scientists’ names and three famous quotations — promptly took charge of the cell, and the cell proved capable of replicating. It was, Venter says, the world’s “first synthetic organism.”

It was the splashiest announcement yet in the hyper-hyped discipline of synthetic biology, whose practitioners view living organisms as circuits, systems and machines that can be reengineered and reprogrammed. Now, in “Life at the Speed of Light,” Venter goes behind the breakthrough, exploring the biological advances that made his artificial critter possible and offering an insider’s view of one of science’s hottest new fields.

Venter is a giant in the field of genomics, an iconoclast who left the National Institutes of Health to run his own research institute. In the 1990s, he launched a private effort to sequence the human genome that would compete against the government’s human genome project. (The rival teams published simultaneously in 2001.) Over the course of his career, Venter has pushed the field of genomics forward, developing new techniques for sequencing and adding new sequences to the scientific literature.

The book, partly based on a lecture Venter gave at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2012, is a testament to how astonishingly far the science of genetics has come — and how fast. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that DNA was finally recognized as the all-important molecule of inheritance. (For years, proteins, with their relatively complex chemical and physical structures, were thought to be the more likely candidate.) Since then, biologists have unraveled DNA’s structure and cracked its code, located genes and identified their functions, sequenced genomes and modified them. Today scientists routinely engage in a kind of biological cut-and-paste, taking genes from one species and moving them into another.

But the basic splicing and dicing of “genetic modification” has evolved into “synthetic biology,” though, as Venter notes, the distinction between the two is blurry. Overall, however, those who call themselves synthetic biologists tend to adopt the perspective of engineers or computer programmers, and dream of doing more than rearranging a gene or two. They hope to build entire genomes from scratch or to use tool kits of standard genetic parts to assemble cells with utterly novel traits.


‘Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life’ by Craig Venter. (Penguin)

As Venter explains: “I wanted to put new information into life, to create a digital code on my computer, use chemical synthesis to turn that code into a DNA chromosome, and then transplant that man-made information into a cell. I wanted to take us into a new era of biology by generating a new life form that was described and driven only by DNA information that had been created in the laboratory.”

Over nearly 15 years, he and his team managed to do just that, in a series of experiments that culminated with the 2010 announcement of “synthetic life.” Unsurprisingly, the research sparked controversy and media sensationalism. (The Daily Mail, in Britain, wondered aloud whether the synthetic cell might “wipe out humanity.”) But the criticism didn’t come just from the usual collection of biotech skeptics; scientists themselves argued over the significance of Venter’s work and whether what he had done — assembling a slightly modified bacterial genome and transferring it into an existing cell — truly constituted the creation of artificial life. Venter doesn’t seem to put much stock in these critiques; he cautions against getting “too obsessed” by definitions and points out that “there is still no agreed-upon definition of what we actually mean by that troublesome word ‘life,’ let alone ‘synthetic life,’ ‘artificial life,’ or ‘life from scratch.’ ”

Whatever we ultimately decide to call what Venter and his colleagues did, their contribution to science is real. In the course of their research, they developed new laboratory techniques, reinforced our understanding of DNA as “the software of life” and opened the door to the creation of more complex artificial genomes. The custom-designed organisms that Venter and others create in the future could have a variety of real-world applications, from producing fuel and medicine to cleaning pollutants from soil and water.

Of course, a field that “frees the design of life from the shackles of evolution” also has its perils, and Venter is careful to spend time discussing safety and ethics. The tools of synthetic biology are increasingly becoming available to those without special scientific training, and Venter admits to worrying about what might happen if one of these amateurs inadvertently creates an organism that is dangerous to humans or the environment. (He seems less concerned about the possibility of deliberate bioterror.) Still, Venter is bullish about the field’s future. “My greatest fear is not the abuse of technology,” he writes, “but that we will not use it at all.”

The book has a density of technical detail that may turn off the casual reader, but its strength is in its portrayal of the scientific process, of the false starts, unexpected problems and improvised solutions that often precede a discovery. Venter doesn’t shy away from discussing the setbacks his team faced before its cell finally sprang to life, and other researchers will surely empathize with lines like “Monday came and went with no positive results.”

“Life at the Speed of Light” provides an important look behind the hyperbolic headlines that often accompany synthetic biology, a guide to the future of life from one of the scientists helping to create it.

Emily Anthes is a science journalist and the author of “Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.”

LIFE AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT

From the Double Helix to the Dawn
of Digital Life

By J. Craig Venter

Viking. 224 pp. $26.95