Spider webs combine a strength and elasticity unmatched by anything we humans can make. They don't trigger much of an immune response in us and are "insoluble in water, two facts that the classical Greeks exploited when they used cobwebs to patch bleeding wounds," notes science writer Adam Rutherford.
These days, spider silk has inspired another innovative use. Utah State University researchers have spliced DNA from the golden orb-weaver spider into the genome of a goat named Freckles, adjacent to her own coded base pairs for prompting the production of milk. Now, when she lactates, "her milk is replete with spider silk."
Rutherford plunks these two scenes four pages apart in "Creation: How Science is Reinventing Itself," a crisp, beguiling and rigorous book. An editor for the journal "Nature," he earned a doctorate in
He does this by cleaving "Creation" into halves: "The Origin of Life" and "The Future of Life." Each could stand on its own, but the author wants us to absorb both views — looking back over our shoulder, as it were, and scanning ahead. He makes the strong case that life erupted just once, on the infant Earth, when a cell split in two. "Since then, the thing that we struggle to define as life has passed uninterrupted from it to you, via a colossal series of iterations. Existence is bewilderingly tenacious...."
Along with enjoyable snippets of science history, Rutherford crafts felicitous analogies. He describes the continuous traffic across cell membranes as "carefully regulated through gated pores, pumps, and channels that stud the surface of a cell like seeds on a strawberry."
Moreover, this book arrives exquisitely timed to the unanimous
Predictions of this ilk are perilous, but the author pulls us along, waxing enthusiastic for
This is called synthetic biology, which Rutherford compares to samplers in rap music, "copying, adapting, and transforming what has come before." Stanford, he writes, is the epicenter for synthetic biology, rooted in the "genetic engineering" initiatives of the 1970s. The book's final two chapters engage the political and cultural fallout.
Rutherford has little patience for those citizens exercised over genetically modified plants, but he takes a sober look at the potential for harm in designing a
The author leavens the book with slightly mocking Brit humor, and scruples to define and explain RNA, pitching his sentences to the lay reader. But he also goes over some challenging molecular geometry, making this a book best read with a mug of coffee, not beer.
And read it should be. Even if his predictions prove to be off, Rutherford delivers a timely and important dispatch from the field tilled by James Watson and Francis Crick, with a vital assist, as he observes, from Rosalind Franklin. "Creation" shows that their revolution isn't slowing down.
Long manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards for the Cleveland Foundation.
How Science is Reinventing Life Itself
Current/Penguin; 288 pp., $27.95