Life at the Speed of Light [Book Review]

I love the idea of biological engineering. I (wish to) believe it is the next, upcoming scientific revolution after the dot com and big data achievements that we are experiencing even today still. In actuality, the big data revolution didn’t do too much to the economy, in relation to the previous revolutions, due to it’s lack of physical products created; it more digitized and improved our knowledge and efficiency on already available technologies. But it’s still awesome.

But what if we could truly program biological machines to do our bidding. What if instead of conducting multiple chemical syntheses to create a pharmaceutical drug, we can tell a bacteria to do it instead? We can change a bacteria’s DNA to create function specific enzymes which help create the drug at a fraction of the required energy costs. Just feed the bacteria sugars and nutrients in a test tube, wait a few hours, and distill the compound afterwards. If we can do that with penicillin from fungi, what stops us from doing it for all chemicals (within reason, of course).

And it’s not just limited to chemical synthesis. Using controlled viruses and DNA-targeting proteins, we can eliminate genetic diseases enhance specific traits in already growing organisms. “Bio-machines” could even introduce more or even enhanced versions of mitochondria into our muscles.

If we could introduce chlorophyll into our skin cells, which could absorb light and already present CO2 in our bloodstream to produce sugars for our body, could help or truly eliminate world hunger (if you don’t mind being a weak Hulk)? I mean, there’s got to be a way for us to re-engineer chlorophyll-like organisms to absorb specific wavelengths of energy so they look pink, tan, brown, or dark (whatever your preference). We could even group them into “energy freckles!”

With a glass of wine, I think I could go on this subject for a while. The problem is that there’s SO MUCH THAT WE DON’T KNOW. Trust me, I started college in biomedical engineering and transitioned early on into Biochemistry and Molecular Biology [before eventually moving to electrical engineering for job security (and LASERS)]. The proteins we do know that are utilized in molecular biology research (ex. PCR and CRISPR) were found indirectly, and their uses were found after their unexpected discovery. Initially, the discovered organism made from these cells and we filtered them out afterwards. Now, we can code small bits of RNA to mass produce proteins though translation. But we still can’t say, “I want a truly novel protein that can do Y, so I’m going to code a RNA chain so it reads X.”

We still aren’t sure what all the DNA in the human genome does. There’s simple stuff like “This region codes for a protein.” That’s easy; just look for start and stop codons. And then there’s promoters and inhibitors, which may not code for anything, but still play a role in “what’s being made” and “how much to produce.” And sometimes there’s inhibitors to promoters to a gene. And there’s possibly hundreds if interwoven genetic effects for “how your nose looks,” “how much fat your body prefers to store,” and “how fast are you to pick up walking during your infancy.”

With their being so much “dark energy” waiting to be discovered, and I respect any branch that pushes into this vast unknown. And that’s why I was so excited to read this book, Life at the Speed of Light. The book, as depicted on the back cover, is about how the author J. Craig Venter, and his team created the “first synthetic organism.”

Of course, the term “synthetic organism” deserves its own chapter (which it did). If you transplant genes from one cell into another, is that artificial? Do you need to create everything from scratch: the DNA, membrane, cytoplasm……the Endoplasmic Recticulum [even the synthesis of that one stumps me]?

What Venter’s team conducted was the creation of a synthetic DNA for a surviving and self-replicating organism. After accumulating research from his and other groups, one can determine the bare minimum gene sequences for a cell to function. While there’s a lot of solid knowledge in why, there’s also a lot of “Well, if we knock this gene out, we don’t see reproduction. So it MUST be necessary.”

This book describes the two major factors that the team had to overcome.

1). You can’t just tell a machine to write a ~500,000 DNA sequence from scratch. There’s no “magic black box” that allows us to do it. What we CAN do is create small segments, like ~5,000 sequences each. You still have to splice them all together to complete the final DNA product (which could take a while, if you don’t know how). Essentially, each segment have to have it’s unique “lock and key” ends which will find their mates in a test tube. And since you can’t have 100 unique keys and mix them all at once, there’s a lot of partial mixing, separation, amplify, repeat. Of course, you have to make sure that the final product is compatible with the host, which is problem #2

2). How do you get that massive DNA strand into the cell. It’s huge! While it’s possible, you can’t just do it with ANY organism. At least not yet; we would probably require some nifty vector viruses to pull that off. The team even had to create a second complete genome, since their original design was basically obliterated by the host cell during “DNA absorption”. Lesson learned. Know compatible cells; add in some chemicals allowing for DNA permeation, mix, and cross your fingers. There’s a million cells and a few million DNA molecules floating around. The success rate is small, but the numbers are high.

But it actually worked; the whole process only took ~10 years. While they only made the DNA from scratch, that’s essentially the important part. I mean, we can make simple cellular membranes by mixing soap and water. Then, blow a bubble. That’s pretty much it.

Fascinating science, but how was the book? Between you and me, I would be hard pressed to recommend it as a worthwhile read unless you had a college level biology course. The book’s initial chapters cover more of the history of “what is organic” and “what specifies the backbone of our cells.” And when it comes to the chapters on DNA and cell synthesis, it comes fast. And hard. I got enough to understand what was going on, but a lot of details still slipped my mind.

And that’s the first half of the book. His group’s accomplishments in molecular/synthetic biology and the history preceding it. Then the book starts to die. Slowly yet with an acceleration that I found quite uncomfortable.

After praising his new synthetic cell (which even has its own email address written into its DNA code), there comes the following chapter of “what is a synthetic organism,” which was quite brief. And then, the last 50 pages almost felt like a rant of interesting side research activities, science fair projects, and random extrapolations of possible directions in general science.

In the chapter “biological teleportation,” it starts out with quantum entanglement. Which has NOTHING to do with the topic. It’s kind of correlated to the fact that now we can send data from one spot to another, and we could have a machine at the end that can receive the data and do biological engineering samples. But I can guarantee it’s not going to be through entangled particle communication anytime soon. And even if it did, we can transport ANY sort of data through the method: lab results, XUHD (eXtremely Ultra High Definition) media, and R2D2 holograms (Why not. When you can can play oracle, anything is possible).

The last 50 pages felt like the editors told the author that his original story wasn’t long enough for a book, so just throw something to the end to make it look impressive in the consumer’s hands. It’s not like most people ever get halfway through the book, anyways. Right….?

But besides that last bit, the book’s excellent. There I said it.

Think of it this way. Even if customs getting back into the USA is a major taxation on your mind and spirit, you are still going to have a fantastic time while in the rain forests of Costa Rica. I did, at least!



Note: If I was born 50 or 100 years later, I totally would have stuck with molecular biology. Right now, I’ll be lucky enough to be alive just to see where this finally ends up going.



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