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Creation and Synthetic Biology: Book Review

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What is the origin of life on Earth? What is the future of life in the age of synthetic biology? These are two of the biggest questions of contemporary biology, and the questions that drive Adam Rutherford’s new book, Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, a compelling and accessible two-part look through the history and future of living cells. Through chapters that span the early history of microscopy to recent debates on the regulation of biotechnology and genomics, Rutherford tells the complicated story of the science of life as it might have been and as it might be.

These two difficult questions, of origins and offspring, have been tightly linked in the life sciences for over a century. In the work of engineer-biologists like Jacques Loeb–who at the beginning of the 20th century sought to create “artificial life” through manipulation of sea urchin eggs–engineering was a tool for experimentation to better understand biology. For Loeb, engineering could be used to examine the validity of biological theory: “the proof of the explicability of any single life phenomenon is furnished as soon at it is successfully controlled unequivocally through physical or chemical means or is repeated in all details with nonliving materials.” Echoes of this sentiment are found everywhere in synthetic biology today, where Richard Feynman’s much more quotable remark is frequently invoked: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 28, 1900

Unfortunately, while Rutherford quotes Feynman at the start of Part II: “The Future of Life,” the book does little to conceptually unite the two sections along these lines, leading one reviewer to comment that, “Disappointingly, beyond DNA itself…these two pillars of creation have little in common,” despite their strong connections. The research described in beautiful detail in Part I, from the Miller-Urey experiment to recreate the chemical conditions of the early Earth to the artificial ribozymes and protocells of the Szostak lab are all attempts at understanding life through creating new life-like things, the descendants of Jacques Loeb’s engineering biology and cousins of the parts-based genetic engineering of Creation’s second half. These two approaches have quite a bit in common, including, often, the name “synthetic biology.”

But, as Rutherford notes early in Part II: “Definitions in science are often imprecise and frequently unhelpful. Synthetic biology means different things to different people.” In choosing to emphasize one definition over others, the book works to solidify the definitions that separate these two approaches along many competing axes. But these divisions themselves tell a larger story about the ways that we understand the past and imagine the future through the practice of science and technology, as well as through the meta-scientific narratives of the history and philosophy of science.

The two synthetic biologies of Creation are separated in the book primarily by whether their creations focus on the origins vs. futures of life, but beyond that the two approaches have also been distinguished by their emphasis on “bottom up” (from chemistry to cell-like systems) vs. “top-down” (from living cells to redesigned systems) design. Both of these approaches blend knowing and making, and both have potential applications in basic science as well as in engineering, proving again how difficult it is to draw the line between science and technology, especially in synthetic biology. While both approaches use making as a form of knowing and both have technological applications, it is only in the second part of the book that making is discussed in the context of the design of industrial useful commodities, from biofuels and medicines to spider silk and even computers.

The focus on these designed products perhaps highlights some of the challenges in uniting these “pillars of creation,” because design, especially the “redesign” of biological systems in the top-down approach to synthetic biology in not really about “creation” per se. In “A Cautious Prometheus: A Few Steps Towards a Philosophy of Design,” Bruno Latour argues that to design is never to create:

“design”…is never a process that begins from scratch: to design is always to redesign. There is always something that exists first as a given, as an issue, as a problem. Design is a task that follows to make that something more lively, more commercial, more usable, more user’s friendly, more acceptable, more sustainable, and so on, depending on the various constraints to which the project has to answer…To design is never to create ex nihilo. It is amusing that creationists in America use the word “intelligent design” as a rough substitute for “God the Creator”. They don’t seem to realize the tremendous abyss that exists between creating and designing.

It is unfortunately into this abyss that Rutherford frequently falls–of course not as an advocate for any sort of spiritual “design,” but rather as an opponent in the kinds of arguments that might arise from using such loaded terms in the title. The book is sprinkled with strong claims about the power of the scientific method and about scientific consensus and certainty, often using words like “dogma,” “orthodoxy,” “progress,” and “conquest” in arguments that are quite distracting when one is firmly in the choir that Rutherford is preaching to.

This preaching is unfortunate because Rutherford is at his best when discussing the unknowns and unknowables of biology with his characteristic eloquence, enthusiasm, and optimism. Both sections address the messiness of biology and the messiness of scientific research done by people in cultural, political, and economic contexts. It is this contradictory messiness, far more than any certainty, that brings this book to “life” in all its thrilling complexity. When discussing the origin of life, Rutherford writes that “we will never know the early earth’s exact composition,” that “the precise point at which life began is unknown, and almost certainly unknowable,” and that though “we have a checklist of the actions of life, [there is] no clear, singular definition.” It is given these unknowables that we are taken on a fascinating tour of several of the theoretical possibilities being debated today, and the exciting experimental approaches being used to better understand through bottom-up creation.

Likewise for a top-down synthetic biology, “complexity breeds inscrutability, and that makes the reductionist ethos of engineering harder to fulfill.” When exploring the potential of biological engineering and the redesign of life, this complexity provides some of the raw material for the creativity of synthetic biology, as well as some of the challenges on both a technical and social level. As Rutherford writes, “science occurs as part of culture, not distinct from it…these new biotechnologies face not just scientific or practical problems, but the challenges of bringing them into society.” What will these technologies be able to do in the future and how will they interact with society? What sorts of social and cultural values will be embedded in the designs themselves? What sorts of understandings of life itself will be reflected in the experiments and technologies of creation? These are the questions that further unite the two parts of Creation, and make synthetic biology of all kinds worth reading and talking about.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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