The day is nearly here when scientists will create the first purely synthetic life. This prediction turns up regularly, but British science writer and Nature editor Rutherford insists that the time is ripe, and he makes his case with contagious enthusiasm.
Following requirements of the genre, the author delivers a lucid history of the Earth and the appearance of life 3.8 billion years ago—so quickly after the planet’s cooling that it may be a natural process. To give readers an idea of the daunting challenges that scientists face, Rutherford explains life’s processes: DNA, an immense helical molecule in every cell’s nucleus, provides information in the form of genes, small triplets of molecules on the helix; RNA copies the information; cell structures called ribosomes make proteins from the RNA template. Other structures, called mitochondria, provide energy. A protective membrane surrounds every cell, separating it from the world outside. This sounds complex, but, provided scientists manipulate DNA properly, startling things happen, and Rutherford devotes the second half of his book to their efforts. In 2010 researchers synthesized all 517 genes of a tiny bacteria, inserted them into a cell, and they worked. Goats given a certain spider gene produce milk filled with spider silk. Readers may roll their eyes to learn of cells programmed to seek out and kill cancers (another claim that appears regularly), but they will be impressed by bacteria that can act as a photographic film, consume plastic waste or manufacture bricks.
While it is unlikely that scientists will synthesize a human in the near future, genuinely amazing biology is in the works, and Rutherford delivers a fascinating overview.