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A Brief Summary and Review
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.