*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.
DNA was only discovered about a century ago, and it’s structure remained a mystery until about half a century ago, but since this time our knowledge and understanding of DNA has grown immensely (indeed exponentially). What’s more, this understanding has evolved to include not just an understanding of how DNA works, but also how it can be manipulated to help advance our ends. The most glaring example here is the phenomenon of genetically modified food. Though not without controversy initially (and some fringe opposition that lives on to this day), it is fair to say that genetically modified food was one of the major scientific advances of the 20th century. Over and above this, our understanding of DNA appeared to reach its most impressive manifestation with the successful sequencing of the human genome in the year 2000.
For the genetics professor and pioneering genetic engineer George Church, however, genetically modified food and the Human Genome Project are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of genomics. Indeed, since the year 2005, the exponential growth rate in our ability to read and write DNA has increased from 1.5-fold per year (a rate that matches Moore’s law), to the incredible rate of 10-fold per year (p. 243). This explosion in scientific and technological progress has resulted in dramatic advancements in the areas of biochemicals, biomaterials, biofuels and biomedicine. What’s more, advancements in these technologies are but in their incipient stage, and the future of genomics promises to dwarf these initial achievements. In their new book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves George Church and science writer Ed Regis take us through the developments that have occurred recently in the area of genomics, and also where these developments are likely to take us in the future.
When it comes to the current state of the field, manipulating DNA has already allowed us to produce organisms with new features, such as foodstuffs with novel properties, greater productivity and nutritional value, and resistance to pathogens. Over and above this, micro-species have been programmed to do such things as detect impurities in drinking water, produce electricity from wastewater (and purify the wastewater in the process), produce blood, produce vaccines, take pictures, and even store information. Indeed, the potential to use DNA as a store of information is already recognized to be the likely next leap in computer science, and is poised to initiate a revolution in informatics (just imagine storing all of the information in Wikipedia [in every language] on a chip the size of a blood cell, for a cost of $1 for 100,000 copies [p.197]).
And, of course, the potential to manipulate genomes does not end with other species: it can also be extended to our own. Actualizing this potential is not far off, and includes such things as increasing intelligence, gaining full immunity to any pathogen (real or hypothetical), and dramatically extending the lifespan (if not eradicating mortality altogether).
In addition to manipulating genomes for the purpose of creating organisms with new biological features, the productive capacity of the genome can also be exploited to produce new substances and materials, such as chemicals, plastics, fuels, drugs, and vaccines. Successes in each of these areas has already been achieved, and the field is on the cusp of scaling-up these processes to an industrial scale. What’s more, manipulating genes shows the promise of expanding the current repertoire of the building blocks of substances and materials to produce a whole new array thereof.
Church's book both is both invigorating and inspiring. However, it should be noted that the book is fairly technical throughout, and will only be easily-digested by a reader who already has a fairly deep understanding of the field. Having said that, an educated general reader equipped with a good amount of patience will have no trouble following the argument, and should learn a great deal in the process. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.