A heady overview of the emerging discipline of synthetic biology and the wonders it can produce, from new drugs and vaccines to biofuels and resurrected wooly mammoths.
In this authoritative, sometimes awe-inspiring book, geneticist Church (Genetics/Harvard Medical School) and veteran science writer Regis (What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology, 2008, etc.) team up to explore how scientists are now altering the nature of living organisms by modifying their genomes, or genetic makeup. Organisms whose genes have been selectively altered can be made to do things they wouldn’t do in their original state. Already, this has resulted in making plastic out of corn and carpet fibers from naturally occurring sugars. But carried out on a larger scale, such altering of genetic programming can be made to produce “practically any imaginable artifact.” Genomic technologies can improve human and animal health, extend our life span, increase our intelligence, enhance our memory and allow us to raise the dead. Recounting the evolution of life forms from the Hadean geologic era (3.8 billion years ago) through the present, the authors describe the raw material with which geneticists are working to create new organisms. While sometimes technical, their descriptions of the science are sufficiently lucid for general readers. In the future, they write, we will have novel methods of treating and preventing diseases. We will also be able to bring back extinct species and their habitats to increase genetic diversity and may even explore cloning as a possible route to immortality. Much of the book might be dismissed as science fiction were it not for the fact that Church helped develop direct genomic sequencing and heads the Personal Genome Project, which is sequencing the genomes of many volunteers. With biotech hobbyists now at work in garages, the authors urge the establishment of safety measures to keep people safe and engineered organisms under control.
A valuable glimpse of science at the edge.