Best known for sequencing the human genome, Venter (A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, 2007, etc.) now looks ahead to the possibilities for synthesizing life.
The author compares the nine months needed to achieve this in 1999—using his “whole genome shotgun method”—to the new technologies available today that can do the job in one day. Venter reprises the sequence of discoveries—from the role of DNA and the structure of the chromosome to modern techniques of “genetic engineering,” now called “synthetic biology”—and he situates the current work of his own research teams at the nonprofit J. Craig Venter Institute in the broader context of similar ongoing research—e.g., at MIT, “a sophisticated genetic circuit has been assembled” to detect indicators of cancer and release “a tumor-killing factor.” Venter then explains how his initial success led him to two new projects: a “new method of environmental shotgun sequencing” that samples ocean waters and has resulted in the discovery of more than 80 million previously unknown genes and an estimated “billion trillion organisms for every human on the planet”; and the creation of a synthetic genome by transferring a chromosome from one species of bacteria to another, in effect creating a new species synthetically. The author hopes to be able to determine the minimum number of genes needed to maintain a cell's life and is also exploring the hypothesis that the evolution of life has not only occurred gradually due to random genetic mutations. He believes that the addition of chromosomes also occurred, providing a mechanism for dramatic leaps. He looks to a future in which robots will be able to sequence alien life on another planet and transmit the information back to Earth.
A fascinating glimpse at a scientific frontier—not always easily understandable but well worth the effort.