The continuum from chemistry to life is now being stretched into technology. Adam Rutherford’s ‘two-books-in-one’, Creation, explores how life might have started and just what the future of life might be, with the advent of synthetic biology and increasingly cheaper, easier and democratic genetic engineering technologies putting us on the cusp of a revolutionary new age.
In The Origin of Life, with care, just the right amount of detail and cheerful wit, and using the stories and biographies of modern and historical chemists, Rutherford explains the science and scientific discoveries that are helping us figure out what life is and just how life on earth began.
Life may have originated on earth many times, but we know for certain that it only succeeded once. We know this, not just because all species on the planet same the basic genetic code, but because the proteins that the genes code for are all ‘right-handed’. I like to see this as though all the books in the library of life were not just written in the same language but also in the same font. If there wasn’t a single origin, we’d see left-handed proteins.
Stanley Miller’s seminal 1953 paper ‘A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions’, proposed the idea that life began in a ‘primordial soup’, and idea that has held sway for a long time, but newer theories propose that life actually started in porous rocks. British scientists like Nick Lane are trying to recreate conditions that resemble the earliest on earth to see just how chemicals can become life. The aim is not to reproduce the conditions exactly for the origin of life as they happened, that is pretty much impossible as much of what we know about that time has been lost in the tumult of the earth’s turbulent geological history; creating one plausible way it could have happened is enough.
MRS GREN: movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, nutrition, is what every school kid learns as something like the definition of life, but MRS GREN are the seven things that living things do; it is not a definition of what life is. There’s quite a bit of chemistry to get your head around as Rutherford explains the inadequacies of the MRS GREN definition and we move from molecules to cells to organisms made of trillions of cells, but this is no bad thing because of the engaging way it is presented; A writer that can explain the intricacies of the Krebs cycle without calling it the Krebs cycle deserves a huge deal of credit, and by the end of it you’ll have a pretty good idea of the ideas that lie behind newer ideas which define life as ‘energy capture that locally fights the second law of thermodynamics’, and the role of chemiosmosis in the origin of life.
The Future of Life is about where our increasingly sophisticated technological mastery of biology will take us, moving on from the chemistry lesson of the first 'book' and into exciting, speculative territory, centring around the nascent field of ‘synthetic biology’ and the ever-blurring line between biology and engineering.
We’ll learn of possibilities of modern transgenetic techniques which have led to the Freckles the goat, who has DNA from the golden weave spider spliced into her genome, allowing her to produce spider silk in her milk.
And through the neat metaphor of early hip hop, we’ll learn how the BioBrix initiative is taking the tradition of open-source programming and democratising the science of gene manipulation, taking it out of the hands of the moneyed elite and putting it into the hand of any enthusiastic biology or engineering student who wants to build circuits outs of cellular machinery. I'd recommenced listening to the excellent Guardian Science Weekly podcast on the 6th International Meeting on Synthetic Biology, held at the Imperial College London in July for more details about the exciting projects and ideas currently in the works.
The latter part of The Future of Life moves away from the nitty-gritty of the genetics and discusses the revolution afforded by new biological techniques in the context of some of the ethical dilemmas that come to the fore as we grapple with new ways of understanding and controlling nature. There’s a fair and robust defence of GM crops, and a discussion of the tension between the possibilities afforded to us by new genetic engineering techniques and the public’s (general lack of) understanding of the science and the resistance of vociferous interests groups, that serve to outline some of the problems, which whilst certainly not new, will come increasingly to the fore as we search for ways to meet ever-growing global food – and fuel – demands.
As biology becomes engineering, commodification, ownership and patents become increasingly significant. One issue, that of patenting genes, has come nearer to resolution in the few months since the publication of Creation. The BRAC1 gene, which repairs DNA in breasts tissue and is associated with increased risk of breasts cancer when faulty, came into the wider public’s conscience after it was revealed that Anglie Jolie had a preventative double masectomy after screening positive for a mutated version of it. Myriad Genetics, wished to hold patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 and be the only producer of tests to detect mutations in these genes, something which an anthema to the open source ethos of BioBrix and the like. Ben Goldacre wrote about the absurdity of patenting genes, and to the relief of researchers all over the world, the US Supreme Court ruled that "A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated", invalidating Myriad's patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but, crucially, leaving room open for patents on gene products that had been manipulated to create something not found in nature. Legal and ethical battles rage on and will have much to say about the direction and speed of progress in genetics.
Whilst Creation is, on the whole, a great, fun and informative read, splitting it into two ostensibly separate books, having the book flip over as we move from the origin of life to its future, quite literally marking the turning point turning for the discipline of biology, for me, just doesn’t really work. I doubt there are many people who will start with
The Future of Life, without having read The Origin of Life first . Treating them as independent books means that much of the beginning of Future chapter peppered with re-treads of what was already written or Origins, or footnotes pointing to where it was covered in more detail. Just as with evolution, the future is built on the past and Creation would have been much the better for it if it had embraced this continuum; a minor criticism of what is an excellent book.
You can listen to Adam Rutherford discuss the book on the Guardian Weekly Science podcast , and watch him talk about synthetic biology for the British Humanist Association's 2012 Darwin Day Lecture.