Book Review: Life at the Speed of Light by J. Craig Venter (2013)

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Authored by the leading scientist of the biotech century, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life is an authoritative work introducing the possibilities emerging from synthetic biology to the public. It may also be the most relevant 2013 book for transhumanist readers because, in Venter’s own words:

I can imagine designing simple animal forms that provide novel sources of nutrients and pharmaceuticals, customizing human stem cells to regenerate a damaged, old, or sick body. There will also be new ways to enhance the human body as well, such as boosting intelligence, adapting it to new environments such as radiation levels encountered in space, rejuvenating worn-out muscles, and so on (p. 158).

Many of Life at the Speed of Light’s words are devoted to talking about the origins of the modern scientific inquiry into the nature of life, leading to the accomplishments in discovering and successfully reading DNA. Such advancements have ultimately led to the ability to write new, synthetic DNA.

While Venter states of his work, “humankind is about to enter a new phase of evolution” (p. 7), synthetic life could represent far more than a mere “phase” in evolution. Venter may have set in motion the most momentous change on Earth since the arrival of land animal life, or perhaps even the formation of the first cell. His accomplishments speak for themselves, exposing an industry that can resolve some of the world’s top crises.

Venter credits the goal to build new life forms to Jacques Loeb, who considered it to be the ultimate goal of biology from the beginning, writing, “man himself can act as a creator, even in living Nature, forming it eventually according to his will… such control and nothing else is the aim of biology” (p. 8). This path was made inevitable by the efforts to “reduce” organic materials to non-organic materials in the lab, as a means of closing the door on the anti-science belief that living material is somehow special or mysterious in construction, and unable to be reduced to mere chemistry and physics (p. 12-24). Responding to the idea of “playing God”, Venter answers that such an accusation betrays a continued belief in the discredited theory of vitalism, noting “belief is the enemy of scientific advancement” (p. 24).

The book illustrates how DNA came to be discovered as an information medium, leading to the gene-splicing revolution and molecular biology (p. 25-46). As an example of the existing benefits of the discovery and the related technological steps forward, Venter reminds the reader, “metabolic pathways are being engineered in research laboratories and in biotech companies to coax cells into generating products ranging from pharmaceuticals to food and industrial chemicals to energy molecules” (p. 34). In other words, there are already growing industries that rely on tweaking organisms specifically to produce useful chemical products.

Developing DNA sequencing technology is a key accomplishment included in the book’s chapters (p. 47-62). After converting genetic material into readable computer data, Venter states, “the fun was only now beginning”. Becoming “the first ever to sequence the genetic code of a living organism” (p. 52), they immediately took on the even more consequential task of producing synthetic genomes, the ethical implications of which are discussed in good enough depth (p. 63-82).

Venter emphasizes “the implications of our ability to design life”, discrediting the claims that his work is not quite “synthetic life” yet because it is not “life from scratch”. He argues that his work does qualify as synthetic life in the truest sense, because the organism has been created according to human specifications. Humans exercised full control over the genetic material of the organism. Extending the definition of synthetic life to not include organisms built from existing organic information and materials, Venter argues, would be like rejecting the baking of a cake unless its constituent ingredients are each synthesized (127-138). Even still, Venter proclaims it will be possible to achieve synthetic cells without a host cell (life as an entirely synthesized lab product!) with ongoing research (p. 136). Whatever the outcome, Venter’s synthetic cell is as synthetic as anything ever made by man, because its internal machinery was synthesized (even if a host cell was used).

No matter what the ostensible outcome, the long and arduous process that led to the feat of creating the first synthetic cell was a “problem-solving effort” that will enable a massive explosion of technology (p. 111-126). Elaborating on this, Venter anticipates, “the knowledge gained in doing this work would one day undoubtedly lead to a positive outcome for society through the development of many important applications and products, including biofuels, pharmaceuticals, clean water, and food products” (p. 126).

Extending from the discovery of DNA as the software of life is the use of computer simulations of synthetic cells. These allow researchers to avoid the expenses and the time associated with creating actual synthetic cells simply to test them (p. 139-145). Venter says “the future of biological research will be based to a great extent on the combination of computer science and synthetic biology” (p. 146). DNA can be written and programmed just as software can (147-148), and synthetic biology students are constructing “parts”, “devices” and “systems” in the attempt to make it ever easier to assemble synthetic organisms for human uses from already developed blueprints.

Even more astonishing is the application of devices that can transmit a digitized DNA code, enabling a “life replicator.” This could be used to synthesize vaccines across the globe and intercept global pandemics before millions of lives are lost, or to sequence the DNA of a Martian life-form and transmit it back to Earth in mere minutes so it can be recreated here (p. 162-170, 179-187).

The ethical requirement for synthetic life, agreed in a bioethics study responding to Venter’s team’s accomplishments, is: “a balance between the pessimistic view of these efforts as yet another example of hubris and the optimistic view of their being tantamount to “human progress” ”. A “good steward”, the report contended, “would move genomic research forward with caution, armed with insights from value traditions with respect to the proper purposes and uses of knowledge.” This has to be regarded as the only logical basis on which to proceed.

Taking a balanced look at the positives and negatives of the new control over DNA obtained through synthetic biology research, Venter considers the economic impact. He states, in an analysis remarkably similar to K. Eric Drexler’s description of nanotechnology’s economic impact, that “creating life at the speed of light is part of a new industrial revolution that will see manufacturing shift away from the centralized factories of the past to a distributed, domestic manufacturing future, thanks to 3-d printers.” This prediction is balanced by the observation that “the key economic considerations in this scenario will become the raw materials and the intellectual-property costs” (p. 177).

Whatever opinion prevails today, the public will be increasingly forced to recognize the vast benefits of synthetic biology in the future. Such benefits will overcome the “global problems that are affecting humanity”, such as depletion of resources (p. 157-159). My own judgment, extending from Venter’s prediction, is that any claims of an unacceptable threat from synthetic biology could only encumber the future. The best decision for humanity as a whole, when we are attentive to the full spectrum of threats in the world, is to embrace this new accomplishment of science and industry in the fullest sense. We must even be prepared to see beyond narrow nationalistic beliefs about security for our society, and instead extend our attention to the security of society in a truly global sense. This is true to the spirit of Venter’s own expectations:

 

“We are moving toward a borderless world in which electrons and electromagnetic waves will carry digitized information here, there and everywhere. Borne upon those waves of information, life will move at the speed of light.”

 

Recognized explicitly by Venter, the “real prize” is the development of the biotech century’s designer bacteria, which shall be “tailored to deal with pollution or to absorb excess carbon dioxide or even meet future fuel needs” (p. 77-78). With the world disadvantaged regions facing an inadequate supply of fuel – the most precious resource heralding all economic activity – it is time for the greater numbers of humanity to embrace the infinite pastures of synthetic biology. No book makes this case better than Life at the Speed of Light.

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