Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford
Here’s a book title that I was surprised to find is not hyperbole. Science really is creating new life forms. Rutherford doesn’t mean cloning life forms we know. He means altering the structure and components of DNA and coming up with odd hybrids of life—such as a goat that excretes spider web silk in its milk.
The sorts of stories Rutherford tells are the ones that science fiction has often warned against, the monsters that come from the imagination of our Frankensteins. So, should we be afraid?
Rutherford, a geneticist, a writer and editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, and a presenter of programs for the BBC in the United Kingdom, is not particularly worried about the gains scientists have made in creating life. He regards this as “a golden age in biology.” This book, in part, takes the time to reassure the reader that all will be well. To do so, Rutherford even contends that the world’s best-known bogeymen (think Monsanto, for example) are not empowered to wreak havoc on our planet’s future.
Rutherford makes a good case for synthetic biology and synthetic genetics, but before he does, he reviews what is known about life and its origins. We take the tour of the history of life starting with the big bang and Higgs Boson (and the current experiment with the Large Hadron Collider to re-create that big bang), tour the development of the cell (and how mitochondria within cells point to a common origin of all life forms), and move through the structure of DNA, again, with a discussion of the evidence of a common origin for all life forms.
In addition, what it means to be alive is defined—well, sort of. A handy definition is “Life is a process that stops your molecules from simply decaying into more stable forms.” But I do like the longer version explaining Schrodinger’s argument; “Living systems are the continual maintenance of energy imbalance. In essence, life is the maintenance of disequilibrium, and energy as life uses it is derived from this inequity. . . . The entropy of the universe is bound only to increase, thereby ultimately creating a more balanced but less ordered existence.” Sounds almost philosophical, doesn’t it?
Rutherford tells the reader that “synthetic biology means different things to different people,” but explores it by looking at the world as a toolbox full of tools provided by evolution that are then available for creating new life-forms. One of the ways of creating these new life-forms is by altering DNA. DNA is shown to be a “data storage device” and scientists can now alter the available data.
Interesting discussions of examples of synthetic biology include “Synthia,” a single synthetic cell created in 2010, and “Freckles” the goat, with her golden orb-weaver spider genetic code, which causes her milk to have spider silk in it. Of course, Rutherford discusses the value of these things—spider webs have important properties (they are very elastic and strong) that may be very useful in many applications.
There are reasons for man to explore changes in both plant and animal life. They have to do with feeding a hungry world as less and less land is arable in a more extreme global climate, and with medical advances that will save lives. But whether you agree with Rutherford that these changes are harbingers of a golden age or whether you want everything to go back to organic, it is important to know what is happening in our world. And Creation is a good place to start finding out.
High school housekeeping: I read this book partly because I am a curious creature and want to know about synthetic biology, but partly because I think it is exactly the kind of book that the designers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read—an ‘informational text’ if you will, one that has facts that could prove very useful to you.
Creation is very interesting and very informative. Rutherford’s writing is clear and he often uses analogies to language and to music to make points about science easier to understand. All of this is very helpful. So, would the average high school student pick this book up and read it, bringing delight to the lives of those Common Core Dr. Frankensteins?
Well—this is a book that many high school students would be fascinated by, especially those interested in becoming researchers or doctors. But it’s not easy, despite Rutherford’s lucid style. Students who have done well in biology class will have a much easier time with the discussion of the roles and components of DNA and RNA. Though not everyone is going to follow Rutherford’s argument for synthetic biology, those who can and do will be happily enriched.