Imagine a future in which human beings have become immune to all viruses, in which bacteria can custom-produce everyday items, like a drinking cup, or generate enough electricity to end oil dependency. Building a house would entail no more work than planting a seed in the ground. These scenarios may seem far-fetched, but pioneering geneticist George Church and science writer Ed Regis show that synthetic biology is bringing us ever closer to making such visions a reality. InRegenesis, Church and Regis explorethe possibilities and perils of the emerging field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology, in which living organisms are selectively altered by modifying substantial portions of their genomes, allows for the creation of entirely new species of organisms. Until now, nature has been the exclusive arbiter of life, death, and evolution; with synthetic biology, we now have the potential to write our own biological future. Indeed, as Church and Regis show, it even enables us to revisit crucial points in the evolution of life and, through synthetic biological techniques, choose different paths from those nature originally took.
Exhilarating and scary facts suffuse this book about bioengineering by leading Harvard genetics professor and entrepreneur Church. The book, written with veteran science writer Regis (What Is Life?), may start slowly for general readers, with its talk on chirality (futuresque virus-resistant mirror-image cells that make new proteins). But when Church describes current work building microbes with minimal genes, the book takes off-and eventually soars. Microbes are natural factories. With genetic tweaking, they pump out drugs, biofuels, and green chemicals more efficiently than bricks-and-mortar factories. Church's award-winning firm LS9 makes fuel by inserting genes from four other organisms into E. coli ("the world's fastest machines") that double every 20 minutes. Other researchers have rapidly "evolved" microbes that make electricity-while cleaning waste. Geneticists can boost drug production a billion-fold, and more than 2,000 genes can predict illness. Genetically tweaked "bugs"" can be more dangerous than bombs. And since technology bans don't work, regulation is key, But "redesigning nature" should not frighten us: it is "an inherent part of life," Church argues in this stimulating book. Illus. Agent: John Brockman, Brockman Inc. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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October 02, 2012
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