I have just finished a great new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by Dr. Craig Venter. It is about using DNA engineering to achieve synthetic biology. He first became well known when his Institute for Genomic Research completed the first genome sequence of a free-living organism, the bacteriumHaemophilus influenzae. In 1998, he incorporated Celera Genomics to beat the government-funded effort to sequence the human genome, which has three billion chemical units and about 20,500 genes. Both teams jointly announced complete mapping of the genome in 2000 with the final sequence mapped in 2003. In that same year, Venter made the virus phi X 174 synthetically, and in 2010, he made the first synthetic bacterial cell, Mycoplasma mycoides. Synthetic Genomics is his latest company.
Venter has concluded that life is a DNA software system. This software creates and directs the construction of proteins and cells. Venter explains we can read the “software of life” by sequencing DNA. He says that if you have rewritten the software of a genome, you have changed life itself. The “DNA software” is analogous to computer software because it includes stored information and instructions to be used in a process. Information can be used, for example, to synthesize proteins, and the DNA software has the mechanisms, including the accompanying messenger RNA, to transport the information where needed. This is very similar to the early digital computers, which used punched paper tape or cards to reference and deliver information according to a program in the computer.
Venter writes in his book, “Now we can go the other direction by starting with the computerized digital code, designing a new life form, chemically synthesizing its DNA, and then booting it up to produce the actual organism. And because the information is now digital, we can send it anywhere at the speed of light and re-create the DNA and life at the other end.”
I will talk more about the implications of this in my new book, Winter of the Genomes.It can be ordered on Amazon.
Larry Kilham is a Sloan School of Management graduate from MIT, received three patents, and has founded two high-tech companies. Many of his product designs required innovative use of computers, and as early as the 1960s he was researching artificial intelligence (AI).