Book Review: Creating Life in the Lab: How New discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator
by Rich Deem

Book Review

Synopsis: An informative book for the technically minded.
Summary: Creating Life in the Lab is a contemporary examination of how scientists are attempting to create life in the lab. The book cuts through the sensationalism of the news media, while not being overly technical. For the Christian, It is good to know what is happening on the cutting-edge of science and how it applies to Christianity.

Rating: 5 Star Rating: Recommended

Introduction

Creating Life in the Lab: How New discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the CreatorFazale 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.

Overview

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.

Top-down

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.

Bottom-up

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.

Artificial enzymes

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!

Epilogue, Appendix

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.

Conclusion Top of page

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.


Book details:
Creating Life in the Lab: How New discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator (Paperback)
by
Pages: 235
Publisher: Baker Books
Date published: February 1, 2011
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0801072093



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.

Science News Flash
Science News Flash

http://godandscience.org/evolution/creating_life_in_the_lab.html
Last Modified February 7, 2011

 

Rich's Blog