Craig Venter’s recent book Life at the Speed of Light is a slim volume that moves swiftly, like Venter himself, through a number of topics in bleeding-edge genomics. It starts with a nice historical tour of milestones in the genetic revolution. It also discusses several interesting projects in computer simulation of cell processes and even ideas like ‘biological teleportation’, which is Venter’s term for sending genomes electronically and then synthesizing them at the receiving end. One can almost see a probiotic Kuerig machine running on four K-cups cryptically labeled A, T, G, and C, producing your favorite concoction to add to your biome. Just be careful to stay away from the one labeled Montezuma’s Revenge. Venter loves machine analogies and revels in calling the genome software and the rest of the cell hardware in which this software runs. He feels this reduces our biological machine to its essence.
But the heart of the book is a detailed description of Venter’s creation of the first synthetic genome to be successfully inserted into a cell. Given that the new genome, though it’s all synthesized from scratch, is mostly a copy of an existing genome, one would think this would be fairly easy to do. But it’s not. As the book describes in satisfying detail, there are many decisions to be made, problems to be solved and new techniques to be invented. The overall task occupies two teams working for several years before they accomplish it. It’s undoubtedly a remarkable technical achievement and well worth all the champagne corks that are popped on that day in 2010 when Venter and his coworkers announce their triumphant creation of the first cell with a synthetic genome!
But still, here is the key question: Why do it in the first place? Is this anything more than showy technical virtuosity? Couldn’t all those high-powered minds be better employed on some problem in cancer? To Venter, the answer making is fundamental. It must be done if we want to understand life. It is, as Feynman expressed it: “That which I cannot make, I do not understand.” Venter wants to have his very own microbe – one in which he knows what every single nucleotide is doing. More than anything, he wants a microbe he can tinker with and change to his heart’s content. Is he right? Obviously, there will be much to discuss at the next book club.
-- Kiril Sinkel