A biologist’s answers to the big question

Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, by J. Craig Venter, Little, Brown, RRP£20, $26.95)

Dublin in February 1943 was the unlikely venue for the most influential scientific lecture series of the 20th century. In What is Life?, the great Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who had taken refuge from the Nazis in Ireland, showed how physics and chemistry could explain the whole of biology. He predicted, among other things, the discovery of a genetic code.

Schrödinger’s wartime talks at Trinity College Dublin set the scene for Life at the Speed of Light, a fascinating scientific memoir by genomics pioneer Craig Venter. In his opinion the Dublin lectures, published as a book in 1944, marked the birth of modern biological science. They inspired generations of molecular biologists, including James Watson and Francis Crick, who less than a decade later discovered how life was encoded in the double helix of DNA.

Venter, 67, is a Schrödinger devotee. He has read What is Life? five times during his long career, he says, and it takes on new meaning and significance each time. As the leader of the private programme to read the 3bn letters encoded in human DNA, which gave the publicly funded Human Genome Project a good run for its money, Venter made his name developing faster and more efficient methods to read life’s genetic script.

If there were any justice in the awarding of Nobel Prizes, his pioneering work on genomics would have been recognised years ago. But Venter has made enemies through past arrogance and insensitivity. Now his tone, as reflected in this book, is mellow. He has moved on from reading to writing genes. Today he is a champion of synthetic biology, the technology that goes beyond simple genetic engineering to reshape DNA in a more fundamental way.

At the heart of Life at the Speed of Light is a scientific account of Venter’s quest to create life – or at least the genetic instructions that he regards as the essence of life – from inanimate laboratory chemicals. The most striking achievement came in 2010, when his team syn­thesised the whole genome of a bacterium called Mycoplasma mycoides, transplanted it into an empty cell and, hey presto, a new live microbe emerged.

This aroused breathless excitement in the world’s media, though, as Venter discusses, opinions vary about whether it really counts as creating “life from scratch”. On the negative side, the team was not making a novel life form but recreating an existing organism, adding just a few “watermarking” stretches of DNA that have no biological function, to distinguish it from the natural bacterium. And the recipient cell, while devoid of DNA, had not been made in the lab.

In language including some hard science but that should be accessible to the general reader, Venter outlines work in progress on several fronts to create life from scratch in a way that no one could dispute. One approach is to make a “universal recipient cell” that could receive any synthetic DNA. Another, more significant avenue is to design a genome that does not exist in nature. Venter’s target is a “minimal genome”, which has the fewest genes capable of sustaining a free-living organism. This would become a basic chassis for life, to which scientists could add genes to carry out specific functions, such as producing biofuels or new medicines.

Underlying the whole book is Venter’s view of DNA as software that programs the hardware of life: the proteins, cells and so on that make up living organisms. The genetic code of DNA can be reformulated as computer data – and stored, manipulated and transmitted anywhere at the speed of light (hence the title of the book).

Indeed, Venter’s labs are already working on units to digitise, transmit and receive DNA data. In his vision of the future, the receiver or “digital biological converter” will reproduce the DNA in physical form and use this to boot up living cells through a process akin to 3D printing.

“The ability to print an organism remains some way off,” Venter concedes, “but will become a possibility soon enough. We are moving toward a borderless world in which electrons and electromagnetic waves will carry digitised information here, there and everywhere. Borne upon those waves of information, life will move at the speed of light.”

Venter closes his book by imagining a future Mars mission discovering DNA-based microbes on the red planet. Their genetic code could be transmitted to a secure lab on Earth where they would be brought to life – in effect teleportation.

Life at the Speed of Light is scientifically more demanding than Venter’s racy 2007 autobiography, A Life Decoded, but worth reading by anyone interested in answering the question Schrödinger posed 70 years ago: what is life?

The writer is the FT’s science editor

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