A fascinating peep into the science of life

creation covers

The other day while visiting the newest and supposed to be the biggest mall of my State, we visited the book shop. At the ‘New Arrival’ section I saw a book named “Creation- the Origin of Life/ Future of Life” (Penguin, 2013). First I thought it was by an author who believed in the myth of god creating universe. Then I realized that Adam Rutherford, the author is a Geneticist and an editor of the prestigious journal ‘Nature’ and couldn’t resist buying that book. I finished that book in a week and now couldn’t resist telling the World about it!

It is actually a two-in-one book which can be read from either side. One half is titled “Creation- the Origin of Life” and talk about history of life. The other half is titled “Creation- the Future of Life” and tells about future of Science, especially Synthetic Biology.

It is one of the most easily readable books on Science. The language is simple and you will forget the fact that the book is going deep into Biology and Biochemistry.

 Origin of Life

In this half of the book we realize the importance of the work of stalwarts like Luewenhoek, Schwann, Scheldein, Remak and Virchow in establishing the Cell Theory. Then we hear about Darwin’s master piece of ‘Natural Selection’ and Mendel’s law of inheritance. Unit of inheritance was later identified as the DNA and how it replicates became known.

Rutherford writes:
“Those three aspects of Biology- cells only from existing cells, DNA changing through imperfect copying, and modified descent of a species as a result- logically unveil a single line of ancestry that inevitably leads back to a single point in one deep, deep past…….In every cell is a perfect unbroken chain that stretches inevitably back to the origin of life. That lineage irresistibly leads to one single entity, which we call the “Last Universal Common Ancestor” or LUCA.

How and where LUCA came into being?

We don’t know it yet, but we are close to finding it than never before.  Scientists are fairly convinced that life started as an RNA World, before DNA, a much better Data storage device came into being. Later there was a long period, may be a couple of billion years, when life did not go beyond single cell organisms (bacteria & archaea). Then probably an amazing thing happened. An archaea swallowed a bacteria and complex multi-cellular organisms evolved. The mitochondria of eukaryotes very much resemble bacteria with its own circular strings of DNA.

Through this book we learn a novel definition of life.

Rutherford says: “Life is a process that stops your molecule from simply decaying into more stable forms. Life has evolved to extract energy from the surroundings and use it to maintain our vital information against the universal slide towards equilibrium by swapping and pumping protons from one side of a membrane to another inside a cell’s innards”.

Where did Chemistry turned into Biochemistry? Scientists are now zeroing on newly discovered under the sea alkaline vents producing seabed hydrothermal field. The vents are brimming with gases, eager to react with sea water. The reactions between rocks and the sea provide natural proton gradient which can produce ATP, the modern cell’s energy currency.

Many Scientists are working on this and results are yet to come, and we may need further experiments, but we now realize that “the conditions of infant Earth, tested in modern labs, render self-creation unavoidable”.

The writer concludes the section of Origin of Life like this:

“As we continue to explore the world of the cell, we are on the brink of seeing the start of this grand journey of life on earth. And such humble beginnings. Every muscle twitch, every breath, every thought, emotion and sensation you ever had, started its journey in a microscopic chamber at the bottom of the sea, four million years ago”.

Future of Life

The other half of the book is about future of Life. It deals mainly with Genetic Engineering and the emerging technology of Synthetic Biology.

It starts with the story of Freckles, a young goat in whom scientists have introduced a portion of DNA of spider. This was done in an attempt to get spider silk, which is tougher than any man-made fibre. It is immunologically inert and has great potential in ligament repair in medicine.

Biology is messy. Living things have evolved over millions of years and carry a complex genetic network. Synthetic Biology tries to avoid the mess by creating organisms with simple, clear circuits and programs built not for survival, but for a specific purpose.

The author then goes on to illustrate few examples of new experiments in synthetic biology.

Sniper circuits are genes which can identify and kill cancer cells. When introduced into the body via a virus, it kills only the cancer cells, leaving alone the healthy cells, just like a sniper, unlike the carpet bombing of chemotherapy and radiation.

Scientists have now breached the barrier of biology and electronics with devices like a clock in bacteria E coli and a genetically made flip-flop switch.

Is genetic engineering and synthetic biology ethical?

Rutherford explains that we humans have been doing similar things for centuries. We have been deliberately choosing characteristics attractive to us in animals and plants to breed. That is called farming. Now we are doing the same thing, only that technology has changed. Scientists who created Freckles can be called the most advanced farmers on Earth.

He asserts that discussions about synthetic biology and genetic modifications should be in public domain, and with the public.

Rutherford concludes like this:

“Calls from opponents of genetic modifications and synthetic biology for bans are unrealistic and destructive. They are designed to foment fear from an ideological position, and to enrage rather than engage….

There are legitimate and serious concerns in many of the technologies described in these pages, but they demand rational, open and informed discussions…

We are engineering life forms to build fuels, drugs, treatments, the tools to explore our Universe and boundless new creations that can help our world and our tenure in it. Our responsibility is not to curtail that knowledge but use it to better ourselves and our living planet”.

This book is indeed a fascinating peep into the science behind origin and future of life.