Review: Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life

Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life
Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“These are the days of miracle and wonder.” So sang Paul Simon on the Graceland album a number of years back. As I read Venter’s account, I found myself intrigued and amazed at what is going on in Venter’s and other scientist’s labs and the incredible advances even since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 (Venter’s Celera Corporation was one of two teams working on this project, along with the NIH team under the leadership of Francis Collins).

The title of this book is deliberate. Venter chronicles his work from the early days of sequencing viral and bacterial genomes, through the Human Genome Project as essentially uncovering the digital code to life. Following the completion of the Human Genome Project, he describes successive efforts in synthesizing genomes, and of inserting synthesized genomes of one species into the cell of another, converting it to a new species. All this is part of a growing capability to synthesize the building blocks to life. In roughly 50 years, we moved from discerning the double helix structure of DNA to the capacity to synthesize the code of life.

What is more, through a combination of digitization and “speed of light” transmission technology, he argues that we can do things as wild as explore Mars, and if we find life, to transmit the genome and reproduce that life on earth without transporting it back. We can transmit code for viruses across the world instantaneously.

Venter at points ventures into the larger implications of this work and the possibilities of opening a Pandora’s box through this research. His argument would be that this knowledge is out there, and that while we cannot prevent misuse of that knowledge, research efforts may be our best protection against that misuse, whether in the form of antidotes or other defenses. He also explores the tremendous potential benefits in accelerated vaccine production, designing bacteriophages to destroy antibiotic resistant bacteria, and more. What Venter advocates are thoughtful conversations about ethics and protocol without hysteria or “playing God” tirades.

What reading this book awakened me to are some of the incredible advances going on in biological labs at universities and research institutes around the world. We are seeing the results of this already in medicine, agriculture, environmental sciences and more. As with other scientific advances, it is vital that we understand not only what can we do but also wrestle with what ought we do and how will we respond when some do what ought not be done. What books like Venter’s does is help us with the first part of that, understanding what can be done as a result of the advances in genomic research.

This review was based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley.

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