#48. A Summary of ‘Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life’ by J. Craig Venter

life_at_the_speed_of_light_craig_venter_book

‘Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life’ by J. Craig Venter (Viking Adult; October 17, 2013)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis

PART I: THE DAWN OF MODERN GENOMICS: FROM THE DISCOVERY OF THE DOUBLE HELIX TO THE HUMAN GENOME PROJECT

1. The Discovery of the Structure of DNA: The Double Helix

2. How Genes Translate into Physiological Features: Protein Coding

3. Reading DNA: The Dawn of Genetic Sequencing

4. Sequencing Human Genes

5. Sequencing Whole Genomes of Living Organisms

6. Mycoplasma Genitalium and the Smallest Possible Genome

7. The Human Genome Project

8. The Dawn of Genetic Engineering: Gene Splicing

PART II: SYNTHESIZING LIFE

9. The Dawn of DNA Synthesis

10. Synthesizing the First Full Genome: Synthetic Phi X 174

11. Creating the First Synthetic Genome of a Living Organism Part I: The E. coli Approach

12. Creating the First Synthetic Genome of a Living Organism Part II: The Brewer’s Yeast Approach

13. Creating the First Synthetic Life Form

  • a. Transplanting a Natural Genome into a Foreign Species
  • b. Transplanting a Synthetic Genome into a Foreign Species Part I: Synthetic Mycoplasma Genitalium into Mycoplasma Pneumonia
  • c. Transplanting a Synthetic Genome into a Foreign Species Part II: Synthetic Mycoplasma Mycoides into Mycoplasma Capricolum

PART III: THE PRACTICAL (AND NOT SO PRACTICAL) APPLICATIONS OF SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY AND SYNTHETIC GENOMICS

14. What Is Life?

15. The Practical Applications of Genetic Manipulation

16. Synthetic Genomics and Influenza Vaccines

17. Synthetic Genomics and Improved Antibiotics

18. Synthetic Genomics and the Search for Alien Life

19. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

Ever since the structure of DNA was deciphered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the field of biology has advanced at a lightning-quick pace. In this time, we have learned how DNA codes for the manufacture of proteins of which every living thing is made, and thus acts as the blueprint of life. We have also learned to read this blueprint; to splice it (to transfer genes, and hence features, from one organism to another—and even one species to another); to synthesize it from its component parts; and we have even learned to rewrite DNA to yield wholly new biological products, features and organisms. Thus recent advances have not only allowed us to gain a better understanding of what life is and how it works, but have also allowed us to take control of life and to manipulate it to help advance our ends—and in fields as wide-ranging as food production, medicine, energy, environmental protection etc. And this is just the beginning, for biologists still have much to learn about which genes code for what features, and how to manipulate DNA to achieve the best results—and thus we can expect that some of the greatest applications to come out of biology are yet to come.

The biologist J. Craig Venter has been at the forefront of biological research for the past 35 years, and has played a pivotal role in some of its most important advances (including everything from sequencing the human genome, to creating the first synthetic life form), and in his new book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Venter takes us through the major advances that have occurred since the time of Watson and Crick—and also touches on what is likely to come next.

After taking us through the basics of DNA, Venter touches on the advances that led up to his effort to sequence the entire 3-billion-letter human genome. This story includes all of the major advances in biologists’ ability to read DNA, and culminates with the success of the human genome project.

From here we are taken through biologists’ efforts to move from reading DNA to synthesizing it in the lab. Once again, Venter and his collaborators have played a central role in these advances, including being responsible for the latest and greatest accomplishment here—which involved synthesizing a modified version of the genome of a single-celled organism, booting it up inside a recipient cell, and having it survive, thrive and reproduce. Venter gives a detailed account of this accomplishment, and thus we are given an inside view into the scientific process—with all its trials, tribulations, and glorious successes.

Finally, Venter details where biology is headed now, and next—including where his own research is taking him. Here we learn about the cutting-edge of synthetic biology, which is the attempt to transform biology into an engineering science. Specifically, we learn how biologists are continuing to perfect the art of manipulating DNA, and how this is leading to exciting new applications across many fields. To give just one example, take Venter’s work with influenza vaccines. Venter is in the process of using synthetic biology to design, manufacture, and deliver influenza vaccines in a fraction of the time that it now takes—work that promises to save millions of lives in the event of future influenza outbreaks.

On the more speculative side of things, Venter ventures into how new advances might be used to probe for life in other parts of the universe—and how the genomes of any such life might be read, and sent back to earth on the back of electromagnetic waves to be synthesized and recreated in the lab. Life at the speed of light indeed!

Here is J. Craig Venter introducing his new book:

What follows is a full executive summary of Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter.

PART I: THE DAWN OF MODERN GENOMICS: FROM THE DISCOVERY OF THE DOUBLE HELIX TO THE HUMAN GENOME PROJECT

1. The Discovery of the Structure of DNA: The Double Helix

The age of modern genomics truly begins with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. This discovery had been sought by numerous ambitious biologists, but it was James Watson and Francis Crick who would ultimately solve the puzzle—work for which they would later (in 1962) receive the Nobel Prize (loc. 513).

At the time, it was known that DNA is made up of “building blocks called nucleotides, consisting of a deoxyribose sugar, a phosphate group, and four nitrogen bases—adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C)” (loc. 501), and that the nucleotide bases always came in pairs (loc. 504); however, it was not known just how these building blocks joined up with one another to form the structure that is DNA.

Drawing on the X-ray photography of DNA of Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling, Watson and Crick were able to surmise how the building blocks pieced together into a two-stranded spiral, or double helix. As Venter explains, “it was Wilkins who had shown Watson the best of Franklin’s X-ray photographs of DNA. The photo numbered fifty-one… taken by Raymond Gosling in may 1952, revealed a black cross of reflections and would prove the key to unlocking the molecular structure of DNA, revealing it to be a double helix, where the letters of the DNA code corresponded to the rungs. On April 25, 1953, Watson and Crick’s article ‘Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’ was published in Nature. The helical DNA came as an epiphany, ‘far more beautiful than we ever anticipated,’ explained Watson, because the complementary nature of the letters—component nucleotides—of DNA (the letter A always pairs with T, and C with G) instantly revealed how genes were copied when cells divide” (loc. 513).

Below is pictured the X-ray image that Watson and Crick used to decipher the structure of DNA, and below that are Watson and Crick revealing the structure of DNA itself:

xray_image_of_dnawatson_and_crick_dna_structure_originalAs the quote above makes clear, the reason why the discovery of the structure of DNA was so pivotal was because it immediately laid bare how DNA replicates itself—and thus how genes are copied in cell division and passed down from one generation to the next. Specifically, it now became clear that individual genes were to be found in the precise sequence of nucleotide bases, and that this sequence can be easily recreated by way of splitting the double-stranded structure down the middle, and having free-floating nucleotides join up with each of the strands, creating two new double-stranded structures (as pictured below).

dna_replication_life_at_the_speed_of_light*The story of the race to discover the structure of DNA is a truly fascinating one, and is told brilliantly in the following 1 hour documentary: The Secret of Life Documentary

2. How Genes Translate into Physiological Features: Protein Coding

Still, what was not yet known was just how the information contained in each gene was translated into physiological features. In other words, it was not known how genotypes translate into phenotypes. It did not take long for biologists to discover this, though.

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

2 thoughts on “#48. A Summary of ‘Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life’ by J. Craig Venter

  1. I met Craig in person last January, toured his offices, and algae lab. Top-level guy, mega smart, changing our world as we know it, and don’t know it yet. Look forward to reading this summary, good choice.

    • Hi Paul. I’m a big fan of Venter myself, and was glad to get a chance to cover his new book. I thought it was very interesting. I hope you enjoy the summary…

      Cheers,
      Aaron

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