Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life

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“Venter instills awe for biology as it is, and as it might become in our hands.” —Publishers Weekly

On May 20, 2010, headlines around the world announced one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in modern science: the creation of the world’s first synthetic lifeform. In Life at the Speed of Light, scientist J. Craig Venter, best known for sequencing the human genome, shares the dramatic account of how he led a team of researchers in this pioneering effort in synthetic ...

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Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life

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“Venter instills awe for biology as it is, and as it might become in our hands.” —Publishers Weekly

On May 20, 2010, headlines around the world announced one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in modern science: the creation of the world’s first synthetic lifeform. In Life at the Speed of Light, scientist J. Craig Venter, best known for sequencing the human genome, shares the dramatic account of how he led a team of researchers in this pioneering effort in synthetic genomics—and how that work will have a profound impact on our existence in the years to come. This is a fascinating and authoritative study that provides readers an opportunity to ponder afresh the age-old question “What is life?” at the dawn of a new era of biological engineering.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

To assert that J. Craig Venter is passionate about synthetic genomics is to understate. At the dawn of the new millennium, he was so frustrated as the lagging pace of the Human Genome Project that he scrambled for private funding to race them. His efforts succeeded to a surprising measure, though eventually his altruism cost him his job. In this book, he give readers a speed of light tutorial on this new exciting branch of biological science, telling us what we need to know what could be next great leap of humankind: the widespread creation of synthetic life.

From the Publisher
"When scientists finally succeed in transmitting to another galaxy the digital instructions for building a living organism, they will rely on science that Venter has pioneered.... Readers will thank Venter for an insider’s perspective on epoch-making science."

“Craig Venter is a singular individual... at once inheritor of molecular biology’s prior triumphs and the wellspring of its future…He compellingly depicts his diverse research as a concerted effort to shuttle biology between the material and the digital worlds…a gripping tale and welcome antidote to dry materials and methods sections that make such sagas feel disembodied and inevitable.”

"[A] remarkable book."
~Scientific American

"A fascinating glimpse at a scientific frontier—not always easily understandable but well worth the effort."
~Kirkus Reviews

"A great read."
~Ricki Lewis, PhD,

“One of the world's leading scientists delivers a history of molecular biology and its many ramifications depicted as it has been and will continue to be, a creator of the golden age of modern biology. His style is that of a dispatch from the front, urgent and engaged, as only a participant could write it, and the best of its genre since James D. Watson's The Double Helix.”
~Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

“Humanity is entering a period of radical transformation and one reason is due to Craig Venter's research in creating new life forms based on computer designed synthetic DNA.  Life at the Speed of Light is his beautifully written, powerful and persuasive story on how DNA information and computers will blend in the coming singularity, that watershed in the evolution of humanity beyond which amazing new possibilities for life, society and everything we care about will emerge.” 
~Ray Kurzweil, author of How to Create a Mind and The Singularity Is Near

Publishers Weekly
Venter (A Life Decoded), a field giant of genetics, makes a persuasive case that synthetic biology will help us understand, appreciate, and improve our own biology. The impatient genius who arrogantly raced the U.S. government to sequence the human genome, Venter scores many “firsts” in this emerging field, including the creation—nearly from scratch—of the first synthetic bacterium. It was not a pure “first,” as he used cytoplasm from an existing cell to boot up his synthetic genome—which only deviated slightly from the genome of an existing bacterium. But it’s a major coup; Venter’s synthetic genome successfully instructed the cell to create living proteins. We can now change the software of life, which then changes its own hardware, as it were. Venter shares spellbinding stories from the frontiers of genomics—researchers creating living toolboxes out of mechanisms co-opted from varied life forms. For the wary, he notes nature itself mixes and matches species-specific mechanisms: our own mitochondria were once bacteria engulfed by, and incorporated into, our cells. Gene engineering opens new portals of life-designing potential, he argues, and he champions ethics reviews of such work. Venter instills awe for biology as it is, and as it might become in our hands. Agent: John Brockman, Brockman Inc. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Famed for sequencing the human genome, Venter has most recently led a group of scientists in the creation of "synthetic life." Soon, we could be writing genetic code for new species, not to create phantasmagorical creatures but to generate energy, cleanse the environment, and more. A primer on the biological engineering that asks that bigger question: What is life?
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-09-01
Best known for sequencing the human genome, Venter (A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, 2007, etc.) now looks ahead to the possibilities for synthesizing life. The author compares the nine months needed to achieve this in 1999--using his "whole genome shotgun method"--to the new technologies available today that can do the job in one day. Venter reprises the sequence of discoveries--from the role of DNA and the structure of the chromosome to modern techniques of "genetic engineering," now called "synthetic biology"--and he situates the current work of his own research teams at the nonprofit J. Craig Venter Institute in the broader context of similar ongoing research--e.g., at MIT, "a sophisticated genetic circuit has been assembled" to detect indicators of cancer and release "a tumor-killing factor." Venter then explains how his initial success led him to two new projects: a "new method of environmental shotgun sequencing" that samples ocean waters and has resulted in the discovery of more than 80 million previously unknown genes and an estimated "billion trillion organisms for every human on the planet"; and the creation of a synthetic genome by transferring a chromosome from one species of bacteria to another, in effect creating a new species synthetically. The author hopes to be able to determine the minimum number of genes needed to maintain a cell's life and is also exploring the hypothesis that the evolution of life has not only occurred gradually due to random genetic mutations. He believes that the addition of chromosomes also occurred, providing a mechanism for dramatic leaps. He looks to a future in which robots will be able to sequence alien life on another planet and transmit the information back to Earth. A fascinating glimpse at a scientific frontier--not always easily understandable but well worth the effort.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143125907
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/30/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 350,668
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

J. Craig Venter is the founder, chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to genomic research. He is also the founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. He lives in La Jolla, California.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted November 26, 2013

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newb

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

    Ever since the structure of DNA was deciphered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the field of biology has advanced at mach speed. In this time, we have learned how DNA codes for the manufacture of proteins of which every living thing is made, and thus acts as the blueprint of life. We have also learned to read this blueprint; to splice it (to transfer genes, and hence features, from one organism to another—and even one species to another); to synthesize it from its component parts; and we have even learned to rewrite DNA to yield wholly new biological products, features and organisms. Thus recent advances have not only allowed us to gain a better understanding of what life is and how it works, but have also allowed us to take control of life and to manipulate it to help advance our ends—and in fields as wide-ranging as food production, medicine, energy, environmental protection etc. And this is just the beginning, for biologists still have much to learn about which genes code for what features, and how to manipulate DNA to achieve the best results—and thus we can be confident that some of the greatest applications to come out of biology are yet to come.

    The biologist J. Craig Venter has been at forefront of biological research for the past 35 years, and has played a pivotal role in some of its most important advances (including everything from sequencing the human genome, to creating the first synthetic life form), and in his new book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Venter takes us through the major advances that have occurred since the time of Watson and Crick—and also touches on what is likely to come next.

    After taking us through the basics of DNA, Venter touches on the advances that led up to his effort to sequence the entire 3-billion-letter human genome. This story includes all of the major advances in biologists’ ability to read DNA, and culminates with the success of the human genome project.

    From here we are taken through biologists’ efforts to move from reading DNA to synthesizing it in the lab. Once again, Venter and his collaborators have played a central role in these advances, including being responsible for the latest and greatest accomplishment here—which involved synthesizing a modified version of the genome of an organism, booting it up inside a recipient cell, and having it survive, thrive and reproduce. Venter gives a detailed account of this accomplishment, and thus we are given an inside view into the scientific process—with all its trials, tribulations, and glorious successes.

    It is a delight to read about the recent history and latest advances in biology from one of its most accomplished and renowned practitioners. Some might find Venter’s level of detail regarding his own work to be somewhat tedious at times, but I found this to be one of the strong points of the book. The only short-coming of the book, I thought, is that it does jump around somewhat, and the details are occasionally difficult to follow (so be prepared to read through it VERY carefully). All in all, though, a very good popular science book. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on Tuesday, December 3; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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