Last month I finished another of my “must read” books - Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, by George Church and Ed Regis. While the authors don’t veer into the religious, a reader can’t help but ponder the unknown and the supernatural – because the book rather calmly takes a fair amount of what we take for granted as pre-determined in our lives - disease, death, the nature of how things become what they are – and without too much fanfare, declares them soluble.
Church is a highly regarded geneticist with dozens of innovations to his credit, Regis is a talented science writer. Church provides the book’s voice, authority, and personal anecdotes, Regis its structure and rigor. The combination works, though the first few chapters are a bit rough if your high school chemistry is rusty. Each time I returned to it, I found myself enjoying Regenesis, and I can’t say that for many non-fiction books I’ve read lately.
Why? Well, in the main, because the subject matter is so … revolutionary. Church and Regis liken it to the “greatest story every told” – the story of life, how it came to be, and how we – as perhaps life’s most capable expression – are close to figuring out its essence and bend it to our will. As they write:
The appearance of DNA some 3,900 million years ago makes it the most ancient of all ancient texts.
Church and Regis lay out how the human race is taking control of the core mechanisms of biology – including DNA, protein expression, and even the creation living organisms, and then draw what they believe are inevitable conclusions:
…we stand at the door of manipulating genomes in a way that reflects the progress of evolutionary history: starting with the simplest organisms and ending, most portentously, by being able to alter our own genetic makeup.
But the impact of synthetic biology doesn’t stop there. Leveraging tools now in early stages in labs and for-profit companies around the world, we soon will be able to harness what we understand to be the very laws of nature – for example, the forces which conspire to turn an oak seed into a mighty tree. If we understand DNA and its expression entirely, then why can’t we program a seed that “grows” into a house? Or create swarms of bacteria that convert waste into clean energies? Or reprogram our DNA such that we never suffer from a viral disease?
In short, the potential of this relatively new science is mind-bending. And according to the authors, we stand at the brink of a massive leap forward – analogous to where we were with digital technology back in the late 1970s. And the connection to digital is more than analogy, it’s central: core to synthentic biology is the ability to turn DNA into information, manipulate it using computers, and then express it back out to biological agents. In fact, this bio-information loop is fundamental to “Regenesis” – and to the field of synthetic biology itself. And while we may be accustomed to the exponential acceleration of digital information processing, it’s got nothing on our progress in genetic technology, which is accelerating at four times the speed of Moore’s law:
In 1980 commercial DNA synthesis services were available, at the going rate of $6,000 for a small amount of product, only about ten nucleotides long. They were used either to find valuable genes in cellular RNA or to synthesize them. By 2010 we could make a million 60-nucleotide oligos for $500. Just as the global appetite for reading DNA seems insatiable—growing a million-fold in six years and still increasing—the appetite for DNA synthesis, or “writing,” will probably grow similarly and go in many unexpected directions.
For Church and Regis (and many others in the field), this is where the practice of engineering comes in. When the digital world exploded onto the scene in the mid 20th century, engineering wrestled it to the ground and helped us create extraordinary new things like computers and the Internet (and all their attendant applications), all based on having cheap, mass produced components like CPUs, hard drives, monitors, and the like. Biology has been stuck in a “pre-digital” age for much of the past century, but is about to burst forth as the strictures of engineering are applied. “Engineers normally had access to an ordered supply of well-defined, interchangeable, off-the-shelf parts, specification sheets, system plans, and so on,” the authors write. Until recently, such tools were not available to those who wished to construct life.
That, the authors argue, is about to change. (Church even goes so far as to encode his book – billions of times over – into DNA. Quite a parlor trick. You can read more about that here).
The book goes into far more than I’ve touched upon here. At times it preaches, or is flip, or dismissive of potential risk or counter-argument. But overall, this is an important work, one that introduces the basic elements for a debate I believe we’ll be having as society for the next few decades, if not longer. Because let’s face it, we’re not going to stop futzing with DNA, or computers, are we? So as Stewart Brand famously declared: We better get good at it.
Other works I’ve reviewed:
Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson (review)
Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)
Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)
In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)