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on 26 November 2013
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

Ever since the structure of DNA was deciphered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the field of biology has advanced at a lightning-quick pace. In this time, we have learned how DNA codes for the manufacture of proteins of which every living thing is made, and thus acts as the blueprint of life. We have also learned to read this blueprint; to splice it (to transfer genes, and hence features, from one organism to another--and even one species to another); to synthesize it from its component parts; and we have even learned to rewrite DNA to yield wholly new biological products, features and organisms. Thus recent advances have not only allowed us to gain a better understanding of what life is and how it works, but have also allowed us to take control of life and to manipulate it to help advance our ends--and in fields as wide-ranging as food production, medicine, energy, environmental protection etc. And this is just the beginning, for biologists still have much to learn about which genes code for what features, and how to manipulate DNA to achieve the best results--and thus we can expect that some of the greatest applications to come out of biology are yet to come.

The biologist J. Craig Venter has been at the forefront of biological research for the past 35 years, and has played a pivotal role in some of its most important advances (including everything from sequencing the human genome, to creating the first synthetic life form), and in his new book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Venter takes us through the major advances that have occurred since the time of Watson and Crick--and also touches on what is likely to come next.

After taking us through the basics of DNA, Venter touches on the advances that led up to his effort to sequence the entire 3-billion-letter human genome. This story includes all of the major advances in biologists' ability to read DNA, and culminates with the success of the human genome project.

From here we are taken through biologists' efforts to move from reading DNA to synthesizing it in the lab. Once again, Venter and his collaborators have played a central role in these advances, including being responsible for the latest and greatest accomplishment here--which involved synthesizing a modified version of the genome of a single-celled organism, booting it up inside a recipient cell, and having it survive, thrive and reproduce. Venter gives a detailed account of this accomplishment, and thus we are given an inside view into the scientific process--with all its trials, tribulations, and glorious successes.

Finally, Venter details where biology is headed now, and next--including where his own research is taking him. Here we learn about the cutting-edge of synthetic biology, which is the attempt to transform biology into an engineering science. Specifically, we learn how biologists are continuing to perfect the art of manipulating DNA, and how this is leading to exciting new applications across many fields. To give just one example, take Venter's work with influenza vaccines. Venter is in the process of using synthetic biology to design, manufacture, and deliver influenza vaccines in a fraction of the time that it now takes--work that promises to save millions of lives in the event of future influenza outbreaks.

On the more speculative side of things, Venter ventures into how new advances might be used to probe for life in other parts of the universe--and how the genomes of any such life might be read, and sent back to earth on the back of electromagnetic waves to be synthesized and recreated in the lab. Life at the speed of light indeed!

It was a delight to read about the recent history and latest advances in biology from one of its most accomplished and renowned practitioners. Some might find Venter's level of detail regarding his own work to be somewhat tedious at times, but I found this to be one of the strong points of the book. The only short-coming of the book, I thought, is that it does jump around somewhat, and the details are occasionally difficult to follow (so be prepared to read through it VERY carefully). All in all, though, a very good popular science book. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
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on 23 November 2014
Some years ago I stumbled upon on an article discussing about “Synthetic Biology” and remembering not paying too much attention to it seemed to me as Synthetic biology was more of an area touching at science-fiction than actually Science.

I was not wrong… but not right either.

It was untilLATSOL-204x313 some months ago researching books on molecular biology that I found “Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life”by “J. Craig Venter which happened to be about this subject and after reading the book cover to cover the book opened my eyes on a whole field I wasn’t aware of.

As it is clearly said within the book, most of molecular biology and related fields fall towards a reductionist experimental approach while synthetic biology ultimate goal is all about creation.

The book is an beautiful synthesis of all the major scientific breakthroughs (and when suited J. Craig Venter involvement) that lead to the historical event of the first “living” “synthetic” cell ever made in history[1].

Going throughout the history we rediscover the key experiments that went against “vitalism” during the 19th century to the many stepping stones from the 50’s to the 70’s that lead to the foundation of today’s molecular biological knowledge.

But most importantly I discovered that it was Schrödinger with this book “What is life” was the first that aimed to describe life with physics and chemistry alone and that the ultimate success of J. Craig Venter was he and his team managed to leave evidence of that heritage.

In summary what happened is that J. Craig Venter and this team managed to transplant a synthetic bacterial genome to another bacterial species and used protein expression visualization to point that indeed DNA is the software of life as the cell had changed to a “synthetic cell”.

More technically they first started out by creating their first synthetic genome by using a bacteria called M. genitalium[2] as it was the smallest known genome that could constitute a living self-replicating cell. They cut it up into 101 cassettes (DNA snippets) insert to a yeast cell (eukaryotic) and reconstitute the synthetic genome with the Deinococcus (bacteria) repair system.

Secondly with another intermediate experiment, they successfully transplanted the genome of M. mycoides to M. capricolum another bacterial species. This illustrated the principle of DNA as the software of life.

But one of the most challenging aspects was moving the synthetic chromosome within the yeast cell to a prokaryotic cell (bacteria) as to create synthetic life.

Since bacteria’s have different systems of DNA methylation (as to protect their own restrictive enzymes) and DNA conformations to yeast cells. As such they could only be used as an intermediate step towards their goal of a synthetic cell.

M. genitalium became too problematic for this execution so after initial reluctance the team switched to the M. mycoides as the genome to be “synthesized”. Long story short they succeed and made headlines in May 2010.

The implications are immense as they managed to go from a digital code to chemical expression.

As J. Craig Venter extrapolates this idea (translate code to chemical form) in his book, he visions a future where hypothetically this could lead to an endless amount of customized solutions available worldwide within an instant. Imagine a world where vaccines, strains, antibiotics could be sent within seconds abroad or even to space. That is a future that could very well happen within our lifetimes.
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on 25 February 2014
Craig Venter led one of the two organisations that gave us the first full draft of the human genome in 2001. But he has achieved much more than this. A PhD graduate himself, he also has that rare entrepreunarial genius that brought together his love of science, and in particular genetic science, with the ability to promote his own ideas and attract commercial and non-commercial support and funding to bring his ideas into fruition as world level pioneering research. The book has all the hall marks of a brilliant autobiography. It lucidly explains complex scientific facts, methodologies and the inner working of genomes in a way that an ordinary reader can readily grasp.

Beginning with the story of Nobel Prize winning physicist, Erwin Schroedinger, who inspired Watson and Crick to looking for the double helix of DNA, he moves on to his own pioneering research in producing the first complete bacterial genome, the first archael genome, and then the extraordinary, controversy-laden epic of setting up the company, Celera, which invented major new methodologies to make possible the deciphering of the complexities of the entire human genome. This utterly changed the research approaches to the modern world of genomics.

Venter continues to hit the cusp of exploration, producing the first bacterial form with a deliberately determined genome that aimed at discovering the basic genes required for the simplest cellular form of life.

One wonders what he will take on next - the first true artificially created life form using entirely novel genes?
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on 7 March 2014
This is a fitting sequel to Venters first book- My Life Decoded - and is a must for those interested in the latest developments in DNA related science. The book starts with an interesting and fairly comprehensive overview of the attempt to explain and to try and overturn the concept of the vis vitalis- the idea that the chemistry of life was somehow unique and could not be replicated in a test tube; an idea that was brilliantly and irrefutably overturned with the synthetic creation of urea by Karl Wohler in 1828.
The discovery of the structure of DNA and the subsequent race to unravel the mysteries of the genome is then dealt with in a highly readable fashion but the subsequent chapters in which the latest recombinant technologies are described may find the unitiated struggling with the jargon. The chapters in which he describes the design and industrial applications of artificial DNA are a delight and in themselves make the book worth reading. New concepts in vaccine design are discussed especially those where rapid deployment is essential such as flu pandemics
In short this is a book for the enthusiast who has some background knowledge of the subject matter whereas the casual reader my find it rather heavy going.
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on 5 November 2013
This book was bought for a friend interested in this subject.
Seen after a TV programme on the author,which was very informative,it was thought to be an ideal present as it is written in an easy to understand way .
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on 24 November 2013
The subject matter was well covered and well presented giving the overall background and history and bringing us baang up to date with the latest knowledge. A book I could recommend to anyone interested in the suject matter.
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on 4 May 2015
Very enjoyable.
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on 28 July 2015
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 December 2013
The subject matter of this book is just about as interesting as it is possible to get: the creation of life. What a pity then that this is ruined by the narcissistic attitude of its author.

A second problem is that Craig Venter's writing style is not up to the standard of his science. In fact this book is rather poorly written. An account of the same material by a professional writer would have been much better.

Much of the book comprises a detailed history, step by step, of Craig Venter's working life over the past 30 or so years. Interesting, but it could have been much more so if the author had been able to raise above the autobiographical aspect to put his science into context.

There are interesting insights here and there, and some good discussion towards the end about life elsewhere in the universe.

For those interested in this subject, I would recommend Adam Rutherford's book "Creation: the Origin of Life/ the Future of Life" which is superior in every way.

Still, this is worth reading too for detailed the description of how a complete genome was synthesised.
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on 19 December 2013
Loved it. So much better than Adam Rutherford's dreary read and written by someone who has actually done so many cool things, from the genome to metagenomics to synthetic life. And a great primer in molecular biology too.
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