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Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves

This review is on the book “ Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves” by George Church and Ed Regis. George Church, PhD is a fascinating Harvard scientist, who I have met at several GET Conferences  and is often mentioned when anyone talks about genomics. His credentials are numerous, but one highlight is that he is the founder of the Personal Genome Project. George Church is a true genius and radical thinker. For Regenesis, he partnered with Ed Regis, who is a science writer. But Ed Regis is no mere ghostwriter and wrote many sections of the book that didn’t require scientific technical language. The book is about, in case you couldn’t judge from the title, synthetic biology and the implications for humans as we know them now.

Before I begin the review, I have a confession to make about this book. It took me over 8 months to finish! Not that I read it continually for that long. I put it down with only the last chapter to go. Why so long to finish?  I had other books I was reading that were much easier to comprehend, and I got very busy with my executive search firm. I wrote a few notes for the first two chapters, a habit that quickly died unfortunately. I started the book in the summer and I had to force myself to read a chapter when I had the time to concentrate. So much of the review is based on the notes in the beginning, a foggy memory of the chapters in the middle and the last chapter, which I just finished. My apologies.

Why bother write a review?  Regenesis is a book about synthetic biology, which is written on a semi-layman’s level, well just barely. It is an important subject that many of us don’t realize is happening right now and has been for quite some time. Also I like challenges and the book was a challenge to me to see how much I understood. After each chapter I would say, “ok, one more down. Whew!” Another reason I finally finished the book is that I like to complete things no matter how long it takes to do so. And frankly the subject is important and relevant to my work as an executive recruiter, who often has to search for scientists with genetics and genomic backgrounds. But also I am a glutton for punishment. I just received from Amazon my copy of Craig Venter’s new book “Life at the Speed of Light” about his adventure into synthetic biology. I thought it would be “fun” to compare the two books whenever I finished the Venter book. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take 8 months! Truthfully, I would rather be sitting on a tropical beach reading a thriller, but in the interest of science, I will plug along.

I would also like to confess that I didn’t understand a lot of the science mentioned in the book, hence why I probably didn’t speed-read the book. I thought I understood the material in a chapter, but then I would quickly forget what I had read. So obviously it wasn’t sticking. Even though George tries to teach chemistry and molecular biology 101 in a few short pages, this book will be utterly incomprehensible for people without some science background. I have a BS in Biology and took chemistry and biology. I have recruited PhD and MD scientists for the last 20 years and therefore follow science newsletters, attend scientific conferences and try to keep up to date. I even took Professor Eric Lander’s MIT MOOC class to bone up on the latest in genetics and genomics. You can read about my experience with this great class on my blog post . But even with all this knowledge( ha ha), I got lost sometimes. I understood the general direction George was going, but the details sometimes escaped me. This is no easy read. For example, the structure of DNA and RNA was explained in a few paragraphs, as were the main components of the cell. The terms transcription, translation and lipid bilayer were given one sentence. There are whole books written and courses taught about these terms. Indeed, I learned from Professor Lander about the genetic engineering terms Plasmids and EcoRI over several course sessions, not a few paragraphs.

But the overall subject is fascinating. First we are told that synthetic products are already being made: 1. Plastic cups made out of Mirel, a plant based product made by Metabolix and Archer Daniels Midland.2. Carpet made out of Sorona, which was made out of sugars and invented by the partnership of Dupont and Genencor International, a genetic engineering firm 3. Bacteria treating sewage and at the same time producing electricity 4. A new improved E coli made simpler with a smaller genome by Fred Blattner, who founded Scarab Genomics. Regenesis explains that in the future we might resurrect extinct species, including Neanderthals, and program our genomes so we can’t get a virus again. The future is without limit as soon as we get used to the idea of cloning. But this is a big if, as the book points out, eugenics has had a bad rap from the get-go.

Besides the introductory lessons in chemistry and biology, we are told about biological handedness (chirality): mirror molecules, which could mean there could be mirror life. The authors write, “While mirror life would be the result of changing the handedness of an entire organism and all its components, so that you have a mirror image of everything from the macro level all the way down to the atomic level. While mirror life may look identical to current life, it would be radically different in terms of its resistance to natural viruses and other pathogens. Mirror life forms would be immune to viruses and other pathogens, the reason being that the molecular interactions of life are exquisitely sensitive to the mirror arrangement of their component atoms and molecules. Normal viruses would not recognize a mirror organism as a genuine life form whose cells it could invade and infect”. He then talks about mirror humans and this could be an “incredible boon to humanity. … But this science comes with possible risks and great care would have to be used to be sure they don’t interact with biomolecules in unpredictable ways….The future of chirality is bright with promise and includes the synthesis of mirror cells that will give us access to valuable chemicals and materials, as well as cells that resist most biological degradation. ”

Next the authors talk about a synthetic minimal cell. We learn about several small organisms with tiny genomes and how you can strip out the genes that are essential for life from those that are not and get to the minimal cell. Then they reference Craig Venter’s work of chemically synthesizing “ the entire 582,970 base pair genome of M. genitalium.” Next Venter changed one bacterial species into another one (similar to a virus taking over). But the big deal was when Ventor et al took a synthetic genome, placed it into a recipient cell, and got that cell to duplicate the synthetic genome. But contrary to claims in media, an entire new life form was not synthesized. Only the genome was synthesized, only 1 percent of the cell. To synthesize a living cell in its entirety is still a goal.

Regenesis also goes into the subject of biofuels using synthetic biology and mentions some of the companies working on this subject, including one of Church’s own, LS9.  The book summarizes well: “The current situation in biofuels is one of finding and then optimizing the major players: optimizing the microbes for high-yield, efficient production through genome engineering, matching the microbe with appropriate feedstock molecules or micronutrients, and then fine- tuning the entire production process for generating clean fuels that are drop-in ready for use in the gas tank at costs that are competitive with those of natural petroleum products.”

This review is already too long, so I will just mention some chapter subjects without going into any detail. There is a chapter about bringing extinct organisms back to life and how this would be beneficial to mankind. Another chapter tells us about iGEM ( intercollegiate genetically engineered machines), a competition for students all over the world to “design and build a genetically encoded, finite-state machine( one that transitions from one state to another under the control of a program). We also learn about a technique George Church and his lab developed called multiple automated genome engineering ( MAGE). George explains, “The kernel of the technique is the idea of multiplexing…It refers to the simultaneous transmission of several messages over a single communication channel, as for example an optical fiber. In the context of molecular genetics, multiplexing refers to the process of inserting several small pieces of synthetic DNA into a genome at multiple sites, simultaneously. Doing this would make it possible to introduce as many as 10 million genetic modifications into a genome within a reasonable time period.”

The final chapter discusses some of the ethics involved in synthetic biology. As the idea of genetically modified microbes might be scary, what about genetically enhanced human beings, the transhumans? The authors suggest we ensure certain safety measures are in place, such as what we have for driving a car. And to those who would say ban all of this synthetic biology, they tell us it is too late. Kits are available online with all the necessary parts needed to create an organism. Homegrown labs in garages exist with people tinkering away. Like Prohibition, a total ban would never be feasible. You might be able to ban something in one or two countries, but never could anyone monitor the whole world. They do suggest that in case of some mass extinction of life on Earth (via meteor, bomb and yes, synthetic biology) we send our genome and cultures out into space somewhere. “ In other words, we will be seeding outer space with ourselves or our descendants”. The authors end by hoping they have given us enough food for thought in their book to lay out “a recipe (a genome) for a bold recoding of nature that emphasizes diversity and safety.”

Related Reading:

Here is an article by Maxx Chatsko for The Motley Fool titled “5 Unbelievable (but Real) Technologies Made Possible by Synthetic Biology”. Several companies already moving forward with synthetic biology are mentioned including, Intrexon, Amyris, and Solazyme. In case you don’t want to read the full story the 5 technologies are:

  1. Microbial factories for everyday products
  2. Biosensors for food pathogens
  3. Marijuana without the plant
  4. Fixing your genes to cure diseases
  5. The end of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers