Saturday, December 01, 2012


Thrilling as it may sound to be able to rewrite our genomes — to harness synthetic biology to transcend challenges such as disease and scarcity of food that have plagued the human race since eternity and venture into the realms of transhumanism, we are still a long way from that goal. And yet, much of this is more than just a pipe dream. In the book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, Harvard professor George Church, a pioneer in the field, and co-author Ed Regis take us on a wonderful tour of synthetic biology giving us a clearer picture of what we have achieved and can achieve in the near or distant future and the tools and ideas that can take us there. 

Book review: Regenesis by George Church and Ed Regis

To start off, the book defines synthetic biology as:
the science of selectively altering the genes of organisms to make them do things that they wouldn't do in their original, natural, and untouched state.
Whether it is biodegradable plastics such as Mirel, created by microbes, or microbial fuel cells, which turn allows us to harness sewage to generate power, synthetic biology holds the key to better our lives in unforeseen ways. At the molecular level, one could exploit the chirality of biomolecules which has the potential to eventually lead to "mirror life." At the cellular level, the goal would be to create the first truly synthetic cell. The authors point out that the successful attempts  till date (including Craig Venter's synthetic cell) have been limited to synthetic minimal genomes combined with other naturally-derived cellular machinery. Our next goal should be to create "the minimal cell, composed of the fewest components that can jointly carry out all the normal processes of life, including metabolism, reproduction, and evolution." The eventual dream would be to rewrite our genomes so as to emerge as robust, long-lived transhumans. In order to get there, we will have to proceed in small steps and study the genomes of other lifeforms which possess traits we lack. The naked mole rat, for instance, is known for its longevity and cancer resistance. The bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans and the Bdelloid rotifer are phenomenally resistant to radiation. The authors describe the resultant transhuman as follows:
The transhuman occupies an intermediate stage between a normal biological human and one of the posthuman variety, a being whose capacities so far outstrip those of ordinary, everyday mortals as to constitute a new and separate species.
Synthetic biology may also hold the key to the world's energy crisis. While there are challenges associated with rearing petroleum-producing algae, they certain are a viable option since they aren't a common food crop (in light of the food vs. fuel debate), can grow in arid regions otherwise unsuitable for agriculture, do not depend on potable water resources, and can remove atmospheric carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. As an archeology and anthropology enthusiast, I enjoyed the book's coverage of attempts to clone extant species and resurrect extinct ones (in particular mammoths and Neanderthals). Quite interestingly, the book touched upon the Pleistocene rewilding hypothesis, which I had read and blogged about not too long ago!

The element in this book I found most delightful is that its roadmap for synthetic biology follows an evolutionary parallel. The inspiration behind this style is the aphorism "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," or the notion that "the development of an individual organism (ontogeny) goes through the major evolutionary stages of its ancestors (phylogeny)." 
Using nanobiotechnology, 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 recapitulate the course of natural genomic evolution, with the difference that the course of synthetic genomics will be under our own conscious deliberation and control instead of being directed by the blind and opportunistic processes of natural selection.
Accordingly, the first chapter discusses the molecular makings of synthetic biology in light of evolutionary parallels from the late-Hadean eon "at the inorganic/organic interface" preceding the beginning of life. The next chapters take us through the Archean eon, where single-cellular life supposedly commenced, to the Cambrian period, known for the Cambrian Explosion — the emergence and diversification of multicellular lifeforms, the Carboniferous period, attributed to the formation of fossil fuels, and the Pleistocene, the Holocene, and beyond. 

Several of the books I recently read have mentioned the transhumanoid we are bound to evolve into — including our digitized psyche achieved by uploading our connectome, Topol's Homo digitus, or Church's Homo evolutis. While most of this still feels like science fiction, the idea of human evolution having accelerated "from geologic speed to Internet speed," philosophically speaking, is indeed exhilarating!

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