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 genetics from University College in London. He puts his training to fine, explanatory use here, catching readers up on the past 4 billion years of evolution, and the human tinkering of more recent vintage.
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....”
Evidence for Charles Darwin’s natural selection is just as robust, telescoped so elegantly here that I am tempted to send a crate of these books to the gift shop of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. Rutherford writes with flair: “Life is an astonishingly conservative system: DNA is the same in all species, the letters of the code are all the same; the encryption in the code is the same, even the orientation of the molecules is the same. What’s true in bacteria is true in a blue whale. Only a system with a single root could display such conservation.”
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 U.S. Supreme Court decision June 13 that genes may not be patented. The second half of the book hums with a sense of technical advances far outpacing changes in the law. “In the next few years,” Rutherford asserts, “for only the second time in four billion years, a living thing, probably something akin to a cell, will be born in the laboratory without coming from an existing cell.”
Predictions of this ilk are perilous, but the author pulls us along, waxing enthusiastic for Stanford University’s Lego-like BioBrick Project, which works to standardize and share the new, synthesized biological components: “At the time of this writing, the BioBrick catalog contains more than ten thousand parts. Each one is a piece of DNA delivered in the mail as a dot on some blotting paper. Drop it into solution, and the DNA floats off the paper, ready for assembly. Some BioBrick parts are genes, some are regulatory instructions, and some are combinations of both, already assembled.”
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 virus or bacteria into a weapon. In the final chapter, he looks at engineering yeast on an industrial scale to produce artemisinic acid, a key to combating global malaria. And he argues that genetically modified agriculture will be indispensable to feeding a planet beset by climate change, population growth and poverty.
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