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

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

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by J. Craig Venter

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The renowned scientist and author of A Life Decoded examines the creation of life in the new field of synthetic genomics

In 2010, scientists led by J. Craig Venter became the first to successfully create “synthetic life”—putting humankind at the threshold of the most important and exciting phase of biological research, one that

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The renowned scientist and author of A Life Decoded examines the creation of life in the new field of synthetic genomics

In 2010, scientists led by J. Craig Venter became the first to successfully create “synthetic life”—putting humankind at the threshold of the most important and exciting phase of biological research, one that will enable us to actually write the genetic code for designing new species to help us adapt and evolve for long-term survival. The science of synthetic genomics will have a profound impact on human existence, including chemical and energy generation, health, clean water and food production, environmental control, and possibly even our evolution.

In Life at the Speed of Light, Venter presents a fascinating and authoritative study of this emerging field from the inside—detailing its origins, current challenges and controversies, and projected effects on our lives. This scientific frontier provides an opportunity to ponder anew the age-old question “What is life?” and examine what we really mean by “playing God.” Life at the Speed of Light is a landmark work, written by a visionary at the dawn of a new era of biological engineering.

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Editorial Reviews

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.)
From the Publisher
“Life at the Speed of Light provides an important look behind the hyperbolic headlines that often accompany synthetic biology, a guide to the future of life from one of the scientists helping to create it."
~Emily Anthes, The Washington Post
"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."
"A fascinating glimpse at a scientific frontier."
~Kirkus Reviews
“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.”
"Spellbinding stories from the frontiers of genomics.... Venter instills awe for biology as it is, and as it might become in our hands."
~Publishers Weekly
"[A] remarkable book."
~Scientific American
"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
“In 1943 Erwin Schrödinger asked the question “What is life?” Craig Venter decided to find out. The first step in understanding something is to take it apart. The next step is to put it back together. Finally, prove that you haven’t neglected anything by building it yourself from scratch. In this articulate, precise, and uniquely first-person report from the front lines between biology and technology—commendably addressing the role of proteins as well as the nucleotides that code for them—Craig Venter sheds new light on Schrödinger’s question, while explaining how his own pioneering work reading and writing genetic sequences between living cells and computers is enabling life as we know it to take the first steps toward becoming something else. A landmark account.”
~George Dyson, author of Turing's Cathedral and Darwin Among the Machines
Life at the Speed of Light takes you to the frontier of science to explain the exciting potential of synthetic biology.  Craig Venter, one of our most vivid and iconoclastic scientists,  weaves the history of our understanding of life with his personal journey as one of the key scientists in decoding the human genome, and now one of the leaders of research into programming DNA and even making synthetic living organisms.   It could prove to be one of the most important technologies of this century.”
~Nathan Myhrvold, co-founder of Intellectual Ventures and former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft
“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
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

Penguin Publishing Group
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6.52(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

J. Craig Venter is best known for sequencing the human genome. He is the founder, chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a not-for-profit research organization dedicated to genomic research. He is also the founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics, Inc., as well as the author of A Life Decoded. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the 2008 United States National Medal of Science, and twice been named one Time's 100 most influential people. He lives in La Jolla, California. Visit

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