Table of Contents
What is life?
To oversimplify this book, Venter has two themes. The first is a meditation on the history of mankind’s exploration of Schrödinger’s question. Venter believes his research has put paid to any mystical notions of “vitalism.” Venter and his team were able to transcribe a genome with complete accuracy, and then “print off” that genome. The round-trip from chemistry to information and back again shows what life is: chemistry and information.
The second theme is that because life can be printed to digital media, we can now edit and communicate life information at the speed of light. We’re entering a new era of humanity’s quest to control life!
Much of the book details his team’s laborious work to transcribe a bacterial genome with complete accuracy, as the slightest error meant the bacteria would die, and then to edit this genome and “boot it up” within a cell. Because genomes have “punctuation,” three-letter sequences that guide transcription but don’t actually contribute to a gene’s substance, Venter’s team replaced the punctuation with a code they devised. This code spelled out their names and several apposite quotations.
During this decade-long quest, Venter and his team made several extraordinary leaps in technique, several of which radically increased speed and decreased cost, and are now used by teams the world over.
Venter reserves perhaps his warmest words for the international educational phenomenon, iGEM. Hundreds of undergraduate and community teams from all over the world conduct groundbreaking research and design every year, along with ethical and societal impacts analyses.
This warms the cockles of Venter’s heart, as you may say, and no wonder. iGEM just might be the most dynamic educational event on the planet. It gives Venter - and me - a lot of hope for our future.
Venter firmly believes that there is life on Mars, based in part on his sequencing of deep-cave-dwelling bacteria. Earth has more life forms below than above the surface! While Mars receives too much surface radiation for life to survive on the surface, it probably has deep reserves of water where bacteria could live.
This possibility ties in with the digital life theme. A future Mars rover with access to water, and carrying a small sequencer (which already exist) would be able to send back genomes digitally, thereby avoiding the profound difficulties and fears associated with physically transporting a Martian bacteria.
The Precautionary Principle
Venter was proactive in seeking ethical review, a canny political move that has allowed him to forestall bioethicists and religious leaders who might otherwise seek to ban the entire line of research.
Venter refers to “low-probability, high-impact” events while avoiding naming Nassim Taleb by name. To be fair, many other people seem to subscribe to a strong form of precautionary principle. Unless you know the experiment is safe, don’t do it, they say.
With Venter, I think the blind application of this principle harms progress more than it aids society. Humans have engaged in genetic modification since the Agricultural Revolution. Food and fuel shortages, old age and diseases, climate change: these are known and intolerable harms. We need to balance safety and progress, and chanting “precautionary principle” lacks all balance.
Frankly, this part of the book is rather dry - he walks through several government reports he commissioned or participated in. Despite the bureaucratic language, the upshot is important and encouraging: the government won’t ban this research. The government and the rapidly-expanding community of synthetic biologists can consider additional safety measures on a rolling, as-needed basis.
The Nobel Prize
I’ve seen other reviews characterize this book as a pitch for Venter to win the Nobel Prize. I frankly think that’s just lazy journalism. Cutting straight to motives and alleged arrogance while ignoring the actual science is a cheap way to write a more exciting article, without doing the hard work of explaining why the science affects our humanity.
Still, if you counted the most-used words in this book, “Nobel Prize” would be right up there. Venter clearly believes his work relies directly on and extends previous world-class work.
His autobiography, A Life Decoded, had already convinced me of that. There are several Nobel Prizes due in the area of synthetic biology (Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, to name two), and Venter should get one.