Review by Alexandra Witze
Reading the first book penned by Church, a Harvard biologist and polymath, is like falling down a rabbit hole straight into his fermenting brain.
Church’s wide-ranging career includes developing novel methods for reading the genetic instruction manual, or genome, of creatures from bacteria to humans. Now he focuses on synthesizing those instructions from scratch. Church doesn’t just think that the new field of synthetic biology (see Page 22) will change your life. He claims it will also change your world and notion of your place within it.
Why not, after all, synthesize a Neandertal? Church and his coauthor explore the Neandertal genome and how modern humans could be used as a template to re-create one — should society be willing to accept building a Neandertal child in the laboratory. Or how about pushing into transhumanism, the concept that genes could be engineered to give people mental or physical capabilities well beyond their ordinary means?
Such philosophical musings are tethered to reality by long passages describing the gory details of how molecular and cellular systems work. Church also explains everything and then some about many of his inventions, such as “multiplex automated genome engineering,” which breaks apart DNA and mutates small sections of it to test for the evolutionarily fittest versions. This is not a book for the biologically faint of heart.
But it is a dizzying survey of how scientists have unearthed the secrets of living organisms and are now using that information to revamp life itself. Whether that information will be used to build a Neandertal remains to be seen.
Basic Books, 2012, 284 p., $28