Book Review: Creating Life in the Lab: How New discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator
Fazale Rana, Reasons To Believe's biochemist scholar, has written a timely book, Creating Life in the Lab, that examines human attempts to create artificial life forms in the laboratory. With Craig Venter's announcement of having created an artificial bacterium, news sources have been busy speculating what is next.
Two approaches have been taken toward creating life in the lab. The bottom-up strategy has attempted to identify biochemical pathways and self-replicating molecules that could have been involved in the formation of the first life form. The top-down strategy has attempted to identify minimal requirements for life and then synthesize the DNA required to produce that life.
Venter's group, Synthetic Genomics, Inc., set out a strategy to produce the world's first synthetic organism using a top-down approach using the "simple" bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium. Synthetic Genomics "knocked-out" individual genes to determine what genes were required for the organism to grow and reproduce. They determined that 380 of the 480 genes were essential. They synthesized pieces of the DNA, chemically linked the pieces together, then used the cellular machinery of yeasts to link the larger pieces together. Then came the hard part - getting the DNA into a cell. Actually, that process could have been much more difficult. Synthetic Genomics specifically chose a bacterium that doesn't have a cell wall. Nearly all bacteria are surrounded by a thick cell wall that protects the bacteria from damage. However, certain intracellular parasites, like Mycoplasma genitalium, lack a cell wall, which facilitates their intracellular lifestyle. However, even with the lack of a cell wall, initial attempts to transplant the foreign DNA into related Mycoplasma species failed. It turned out that these bacteria, like most other bacteria, contain endonucleases to protect the host from foreign DNA. Venter's team had to eliminate those genes from the host cell and methylate the transplanted DNA to protect it from digestion. They also used a "trick" to make the foreign DNA take over the cell. Synthetic Genomics added antibiotic resistance (tetracycline) to the foreign DNA, then grew the transplanted cells in the antibiotic. Therefore, only antibiotic resistant cells (the ones with the foreign DNA) would grow. Therefore, the original DNA was eventually eliminated, resulting in the new bacterium, named Mycoplasma laboratorium.
The other approach to creating life in the lab involves the bottom-up strategy. This approach is exemplified by the work of origin of life researcher Jack Szostak. Szostak's research has attempted to create protocells through the design of membrane-bounded vesicles followed by the incorporation of nucleic acids and metabolic components. The approach is decidedly more difficult and requires much more intelligent design than the top-down strategy. Instead of showing that life can arise without direction, the work shows that such an approach requires much planning and significant trial and error to get the right conditions, although researchers are still far from creating a novel life form.
Another interesting section of Creating Life in the Lab is one on artificial enzymes. Biological enzymes catalyze chemical reactions, often increasing the spontaneous reaction rate by a billion times or more. Scientists have set out to produce artificial enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions not used in biological organisms. Comparing the structure of biological enzymes, scientists used super-computers to calculate the sequences of amino acids in their enzymes that might catalyze the reaction they were interested in. After testing dozens of candidates,, the best ones were chosen and subjected to "in vitro evolution," which increased the reaction rate up to 200-fold. Despite all this "intelligent design," the artificial enzymes were 10,000 to 1,000,000,000 times less efficient than their biological counterparts. Dr. Rana asks the question, "is it reasonable to think that undirected evolutionary processes routinely accomplished this task?"
Origin of life
The last half of of Creating Life in the Lab (chapters 7-13) examine our knowledge of possible origin of life scenarios and problems. Although covered in more detail in Dr. Rana's Origins of Life (published in 2004), these chapters update the latest studies that have attempted find a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life. These chapters include discussions of major origin of life models, including replicator first and metabolism first hypotheses. Numerous problems are discussed, including homochirality and the origin of biological membranes. Are scientists closer to a naturalistic explanation for life's origin? You will have to read the book to find out!
The epilogue ties everything together, along with Dr. Rana's predictions about what the future will hold in artificial life forms and origin of life research. How should a Christian react to such studies? Creating Life in the Lab contains an appendix, which is a brief introduction to biochemistry and how cells function. If you have little background on the subject, you might want to start by reading the appendix so that the rest of the book makes more sense.
Creating Life in the Lab is a contemporary examination of how scientists are attempting to create life in the lab. The book is a great summary of the current research in the field. It cuts through the sensationalism of the news media, while not being overly technical. It is less technical than Dr. Rana's The Cell's Design, but still requires some technical interest in biology/biochemistry for full appreciation. In a world dominated by science and technology, it is good for Christians to know what is happening on the cutting-edge of science and how it applies to Christianity.
Creating Life in the Lab: How New discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator (Paperback)
by Fazale Rana
Publisher: Baker Books
Date published: February 1, 2011
- Do New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator? at Reasons To Believe
- Creating Life in the Lab - Fazale Rana's blog, including interviews and reviews.
- Book Review: The Cell's Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator's Artistry
- Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off - Fuz Rana (a biochemist) and Hugh Ross (an astrophysicist) have teamed up to write the definitive analysis of the origin of life. The book examines the origins of life from the perspectives of chemistry, biochemistry, astronomy, and the Bible. A biblical creation model is presented along side the naturalistic models to help the reader decide which one fits the data better. This is an excellent book to give to your unbelieving friends, since it presents a testable creation model that is clearly superior to any naturalistic model.
Creating Life in the Lab
Welcome to the "Creating Life in the Lab" virtual book tour. Keep up with the news on my latest book via radio interviews, informative book reviews, speaking tour updates, and more.
- 05/03/2011 04:36 PM
Recap of Virginia and DC trip
The beginning of April found me traveling for more of the Creating Life in the Lab book tour. Some highlights include: Speaking at Georgetown School of Medicine, John Hopkins University, and University of Maryland about Creating Life in the Lab An afternoon spent at the Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters in Virginia Beach to video tape […]
- 04/27/2011 06:38 PM
Three Days Left!
It’s important that I remind you that there’s only three days left to guarantee your cabin on RTB’s Alaska Cruise Conference this summer, July 30–August 6. The theme of our cruise is Future Faith Challenges. I’ll be speaking about Common Descent or Common Design? and, in a breakout session, on Creating Life in the Lab. […]
- 03/30/2011 04:25 PM
The Blueprint for an Artificial Cell
It isn’t such a good idea to try to build a house without a set of blueprints to guide the construction. The same goes for building cells. That’s why a team of synthetic biologists from Rockefeller University recently published the blueprint for the artificial cell project, a research program aiming to design a synthetic cell […]
- 03/23/2011 12:57 PM
Speaking Tour Recap
March 15: Had a great time in Winnipeg taping programs for It’s a New Day. They will air, I am told, in the fall (I’ll keep you posted on that). We taped four programs, two on The Cell’s Design and two on Creating Life in the Lab. Here are some shots of me on the […]
- 03/14/2011 11:37 AM
Review by Dr. Jay L. Wile
Nuclear chemist Dr. Jay L. Wile posted a thorough review of Creating Life in the Lab on his blog, Proslogion (named for a work by Anselm of Canterbury; its English title is Discourse on the Existence of God).
- 03/10/2011 05:16 PM
Headed to Winnipeg
Headed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to tape television interviews with It’s A New Day. We’ll be discussing Creating Life in the Lab and The Cell’s Design. (I’ll post the air dates later this spring.) And then it’s off to Illinois for a speaking tour.
- 03/09/2011 11:20 AM
Interview on The Line of Fire
Yesterday I talked about Creating Life in the Lab with Dr. Michael Brown on The Line of Fire. Listen to the interview at lineoffireradio.com.
- 03/07/2011 06:26 PM
Two-Hour Interview with Greg Koukl
Had a great time discussing Creating Life in the Lab with apologist Greg Koukl during the last two hours on the Stand to Reason podcast. Listen to the interview here.
audio/mpeg (39.5 MBytes)
- 03/02/2011 12:37 PM
Automated Synthesis of Sugars Sweetens the Case for Intelligent Design
When it comes to sugars, most people want to find ways to break them down. But there are a few scientists who want to figure out ways to put these compounds together. Recently, researchers took this desire to the extreme by devising machines that synthesize sugars.1 The work represents an important milestone for scientists studying […]
- 02/25/2011 01:45 PM
Upcoming Speaking Tour in Illinois
I’ll be speaking on Creating Life in the Lab at these events in March. March 16: Deerfield, IL, Trinity International University* March 17: Wheaton, IL, Wheaton College* March 18: South Barrington, IL, Willow Creek Community Church For event details, visit reasons.org/events. *These events are not sponsored by Trinity International University or Wheaton College.
Last Modified February 7, 2011