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WHAT IS LIFE? by Ed Regis Kirkus Star

WHAT IS LIFE?

Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology

By Ed Regis

Pub Date: April 9th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-374-28851-8
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Veteran science writer Regis (The Info Mesa: Science, Business, and New Age Alchemy on the Santa Fe Plateau, 2003, etc.) explores the mechanisms of life and the latest attempts to reproduce them in the lab.

This slim book shares the title of an even slimmer 1944 classic by Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger. The Austrian physicist predicted that life, often viewed as an inexplicable phenomenon, obeyed scientific laws no different from those in chemistry and physics. Researchers proved him right almost immediately, and Regis delivers clear descriptions of the avalanche of breakthroughs that launched the modern field of biology. He begins at the beginning with the cheerful news that life may not be the wildly improbable chance combination of elements in the primordial soup that traditional texts depict, but rather an inevitable, natural self-organizing principle that applies as soon as a planet cools. Once alive, every species must evolve, reproduce and metabolize, and even educated readers will learn from Regis’s account of the icons who opened up these fields—Darwin for evolution, Mendel in genetics, 1953 Nobel laureate Hans Adolf Krebs, “the first hero of metabolism”—and their followers. Having provided the groundwork, Regis describes cutting-edge scientists working to produce purely synthetic life. This is not science fiction, he assures us, but research performed by mainstream academics, as well as a few scientists financed by private investors who intend to reap financial rewards from their creations. All life takes place in cells surrounded by a complex wall made of fatty acids. Simple fatty acid walls are not hard to make, and scientists are making them. The innumerable metabolic reactions of life occur within cells, but these reactions are now happening inside laboratory “protocells,” although they require external life-support to provide nutrients. As for reproduction, researchers are working with artificial versions of DNA that can duplicate themselves.

Lucid and exciting.