I might be exaggerating slightly about the ready availability of the materials…

Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves by George Church and Ed Regis looks like a futurist tome on what could happen when technology finally catches up with human imagination and everything changes. Except it isn’t. Most futurists are people with some knowledge of technology, a fertile imagination, and a publicist. Regenesis is by a scientist (working with a writer) who is busy making a different future and who has been involved in every stage of development of the technology under discussion, and for this reason is one of the more important new science-related books you can read right now. Regis is a multiply published science author (his most recent book is What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology) and George Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is one of the key players in the Personal Genome Project. He directs Personal Genomics.org, which curates the only OpenAccess human “Genomic, Environmental and Trait database. His work led to the first commercial genome sequence (for apathogen) and he has been involved in both genome sequencing (reading the genes) and synthesis (making new ones) in both the academic and private milieu. He is also director of the NIH “Center for Excellence in Genomic Science” which places him at the center of biosafety, gene privacy, and security policy development.

Church was finishing is PhD work at Harvard the same year that I started mine. We never met to my knowledge, but I remember the construction in those days of the new genetic research facility there. Cambridge, Massachusetts was the first and only city (and still maybe the only one) to write zoning and building regulations for genetic research facilities, and the building was right across from the museum I worked in. People were afraid of what might happen if some of the genes, or genetically modified organisms, they were working on in that building got out. That was a valid concern given the unknowns, but it would eventually happen that the details of what people needed to worry about shifted considerably over time. Had George Church been sent back in a time capsule and put in charge of that project, his understanding of and commitment to safety in genetic research would have been more than a little reassuring. Of course, this would have then affected his own future and thus … oh never mind, that damn Time Paradox is too confusing…

Regenesis covers the history and current status of some of the most innovative and interesting research in genetic engineering, and it is organized in a way that I really liked. The book is written as a time line. The chapters run as follows:

  • -3,800 Myr, Late Hadan
  • -3,500 Myr, Archean
  • -500 Myr, Cambrian
  • -360 Myr, Carboniferous
  • -60 Myr, Paleocene
  • -30,000 YR, Pleistocene Park
  • -10,000 YR, Neolithic
  • -100 Yr, Anthropocene
  • -1 Yr, Holocene
  • +1 Yr, The End of the Beginning, Transhumanis, and the Panspermia Era

See what they did there?

Each of these past eras represents a change in the genetics, cellular biology, evolutionary stage, or environmental context in which live existed, with the human role coming along in a big way near the end. This allows the authors to discuss the nature of life at each stage, and related the last 20 or so years of genomic and genetic research to different levels of organization of life. This causes this book to be different from the average run of the mill futurist book in two ways: 1) You learn stuff about how things are and have been, detailed stuff, interesting stuff; and 2) There is a solid road map imposed on the discussion of what is being done now and what could be done in the future, which allows the authors to avoid the messing around we see in a lot of futurist books. In other words, this is not futurist manifest; It is a history of life and a detailed discussion of what humans are actually doing with life these days and what we seem poised to be able to do based on a solid grounding in actual ongoing research.

One of the most interesting themes that helps underscore the nature of this discussion is left- vs right-handedness in biology. Most complex biological molecules could be built with the structure and symmetry organized in a left handed vs right handed way. It is quite possible that we could encounter a planet (if we could get there) rich in life that is all built on molecules that are the opposite in orientation from what we have here on Earth. Not only that, but it is possible to build such a life form now. We could construct a human that is left-handed, and thus, fundamentally different from all other humans. Such a human could not be infected by many, perhaps most, cell-level pathogens because those pathogens would not be able to interact with the left-handed body. Obviously, this is a complex issue and there is a lot too it…you’ll have to read the book to find out what the implications and complications of such a thing might be.

The most important theme in the book, and also very interesting, is the concept of synthetic biology. The goal of synthetic biology is to create an organism or set of organisms that use the standard biological machinery (proteins and enzymes and stuff building other molecules in a certain way) that will be instructed with their DNA to produce a certain product, such as oil, a house, a cute little furry organism that will replace your Roomba. Well, maybe not that last one. We use lots of synthetic biology now but we are at the chipped-stone tool phase. The basics are in place, the research is progressing, the market for the products is there. Synthetic biology is one of those “technologies” that many hope will come along and solve many of our problems. It should be relatively straight forward to create a thing that will make hydrocarbon based fuels, which one must admit are a very handy way of storing energy, from raw materials that do not include fossil carbon. My personal fantasy is to build large flat factories on the sea surface or in open arid regions that will produce a solid that we just pile up somewhere to contain carbon taken from the atmosphere, and a steady stream of a clean burning liquid. Down the street, I want to see a factory that consist of a giant, 30 acre leaf surface under which is constantly being built a layer of genetically engineered wood, with whatever properties are needed. Imagine 2X4s of just the right strength and flexibility, but indurated with anti-fungicidal and other preservative chemicals. A combination of balsa, ebony, maple, cedar and hickory. Left-handed, of course. Who needs plastic and concrete when we have Frankewood! Bwahahaha!

I interviewed George Church a couple of weeks ago on the radio. The podcast of that interview is located hare on iTunes
icon, or you can find out other ways to get it or listen to it directly here.

From the official description of the book:

Imagine a future in which human beings have become immune to all viruses, in which bacteria can custom-produce everyday items, like a drinking cup, or generate enough electricity to end oil dependency. Building a house would entail no more work than planting a seed in the ground. These scenarios may seem far-fetched, but pioneering geneticist George Church and science writer Ed Regis show that synthetic biology is bringing us ever closer to making such visions a reality.

In Regenesis, Church and Regis explorethe possibilities—and perils—of the emerging field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology, in which living organisms are selectively altered by modifying substantial portions of their genomes, allows for the creation of entirely new species of organisms. Until now, nature has been the exclusive arbiter of life, death, and evolution; with synthetic biology, we now have the potential to write our own biological future. Indeed, as Church and Regis show, it even enables us to revisit crucial points in the evolution of life and, through synthetic biological techniques, choose different paths from those nature originally took.

Comments

  1. #1 sailor
    December 3, 2012

    Yes, I am waiting for the right ap so we can design new lifeforms on the mobile phone while waiting for the bus.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 3, 2012

    You could design the bus and get their faster!