What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology

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9780195383416: What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology

Erwin Schrödinger's 1944 classic What Is Life? is a small book that occupies a large place among the great written works of the twentieth century. It is said that it helped launch the modern revolution in biology and genetics, and inspired a generation of scientists, including Watson and Crick, to explore the riddle of life itself.

Now, more than sixty years later, science writer Ed Regis offers an intriguing look at where this quest stands today. Regis ranges widely here, illuminating many diverse efforts to solve one of science's great mysteries. He examines the genesis of Schrödinger's great book--which first debuted as three public lectures in Dublin--and details the fantastic reception his ideas received, both in Europe and America. Regis also introduces us to the work of a remarkable group of scientists who are attempting literally to create life from scratch, starting with molecular components that they hope to assemble into the world's first synthetic living cell. The book also examines how scientists have unlocked the "three secrets of life," describes the key role played by ATP ("the ultimate driving force of all life"), and outlines the many attempts to explain how life first arose on earth, a puzzle that has given birth to a wide range of theories (which Francis Crick dismissed as "too much speculation running after too few facts"), from the primordial sandwich theory, to the theory that life arose in clay, in deep-sea vents, or in oily bubbles at the seashore, right up to Freeman Dyson's "theory of double origins."
Written in a lively and accessible style, and bringing together a wide range of cutting-edge research, What is Life? makes an illuminating contribution to this ancient and ever-fascinating debate.

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About the Author:


Ed Regis is a full-time science writer, contributing to Scientific American, Harper's Magazine, Wired, Discover, and The New York Times, among other publications. He is the author of several books, including The Biology of Doom.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

  What Is Life?
OneBirth of a Cell
 
 MAY 2005. In a new industrial park at Porto Marghera, some four miles across the lagoon from Venice, an American physicist by the name of Norman Packard is staring at the enormous 30-inch-wide display screen of a Macintosh G5 computer. Floating around against a dark background is a dense assortment of red, green, and blue dots.“Blue is water, the greens are hydrophobic molecules, which means they don’t like water, and the reds are hydrophilic molecules, which do,” Packard says.The simulation begins with the dots spread out evenly across the screen in a relatively homogeneous mix. But then in the incremental time-steps of the particle dynamics program, a pattern emerges. The greens move toward one another and then converge and clump together, forming a spherical structure. The reds, meanwhile, follow the greens and arrange themselves on the outside of the mass, as if to protect it from intrusion. The result is a vesicle, a tiny bilayered fluid-filled sac. The vesicle has formed itself spontaneously, the result of a self-assembly process driven by Brownian motion (the random thermal movement of molecules in a fluid medium) and by various chemical reactions.“We believe that this combination of chemical reactions and self-assembly is one of the crucial combinations that we need to understand to make these artificial cells,” Packard says.Artificial cells? Venice? A city of more than a hundred churches, miles of canals, and innumerable ancient palazzi, all of them suspended in time, a place where nothing fundamentally new has happened for hundreds of years? Somehow the location is strangely fitting. In its heyday, Venice was a world-class power and trading center as well as a realm of considerable intellectual freedom. The city was now and always had been home to a variety of creative spirits: composers, artists, and scientists, including Galileo. And its labyrinthine streets and alleys were bathed in the green waters of the Venetian lagoon—water just coincidentally being the medium in which, according to most theories, earthly life originally began. So why should it not begin again, here?Norman Packard, for one, finds no incongruity in the prospect. Packard is the chairman, CEO, and scientific head of ProtoLife s.r.l., a Venetian start-up company located in Parco Vega, a technology park the regional government had created on the grounds of an old chemical factory.“The city of Venice, but even more generally the region of Veneto, wants to diversify its portfolio of activities,” Packard said. “Venice has this very strong component of tourism that dominates its economy in many ways, and so it’s trying to create some economic diversity that can give a certain kind of life to the city, not related to tourism.”ProtoLife’s business plan is founded on an attempt to start life over, to begin from the beginning. It’s not their intention to redo Genesis, outdo Frankenstein, or to blaze a path of glory through one of the final frontiers of applied science—although, if they’re successful, Packard and his crew will end up doing all those things. The company’s motivation is far more prosaic, practical, and commercial: to create artificial cells. Made from scratch and called “protocells,” they will be programmed to carry out useful tasks such as synthesizing vaccines and drugs, cleaning up toxic waste, scavenging excess CO2 from the atmosphere, and other such miracles, and earning the company a tidy profit in the process.After watching his simulation run a few more times—“We’ve done between six and seven thousand runs so far,” he says—Packard walks down a polished green marble hallway, turns right, unlocks a door, and enters the company’s lab suite. This is the domain of ProtoLife’s chief chemist, Martin Hanczyc, a postdoc Packard recently hired away from Jack Szostak’s competing artificial cell project at Harvard. In fact, ProtoLife is only one of a half dozen or so scientific efforts bent on creating new life: in addition to the ProtoLife and Harvard projects, there are others at Rockefeller University in New York, the University of Nottingham in England, and the University of Osaka in Japan, among other places. All too obviously, creating life is an undertaking whose time has come.Hanczyc’s laboratory at ProtoLife boasts a full supply of chemical apparatus: the usual lab glassware, serological pipettes, fume hoods, scales, centrifuges, microscopes, plus heavier machinery. “This is one of our main analytic tools, a combination spectrophotometer and fluorometer,” Packard says of a large piece of equipment. “You find this in practically every chemistry lab in Europe, so we have one too.”Hanczyc has been synthesizing and studying various types of vesicles, and today Packard wants to show me what they look like. Packard is a big man with shaggy blond hair, glasses, and a courtly manner. He has a slow and deliberate style of speech, which includes a precise, mellifluous Italian, courtesy of his wife, Grazia Peduzzi, who was born in Milan. He squints through a fluorescence microscope, adjusts the focus, and finally, there they are: the real-life correlates of the objects he had been simulating on the computer.“Somewhat dried up,” he says of the vesicles, which Hanczyc had prepared a while ago.A vesicle is not a living thing. It’s just a shell, a husk, the merest framework of the full artificial cell that’s supposed to assemble itself on the premises and spring into life at some undefined point in the future. Nevertheless, what we have here on the microscope stage is something passably astonishing, slight and rudimentary though it might appear at first glance. For these filmy minute blobs are the first stirrings of an event that last took place billions of years ago: the genesis of life.
 
 THE DREAM OF creating life has ancient roots in the human imagination. In Frankenstein, which Mary Shelley completed in 1817 at the age of nineteen, the scientist Victor Frankenstein cobbled together a creature from body parts he’d spirited away in the dead of night from graveyards, dissection rooms, and slaughterhouses. The resulting beast came to life when Dr. Frankenstein, by unspecified means, infused “a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”Serious scientific attempts at infusing a “spark of life” into inanimate flesh go back at least to Luigi Galvani’s discovery in 1771 that by applying electrical currents to a dissected frog’s legs he could cause them to twitch as if alive. A hundred years later, in 1871, Darwin spoke of life as possibly having arisen “in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, &c., present.”As if following Darwin’s recipe, when twentieth-century scientists approached the problem of understanding how life originally arose on earth, they attempted to re-create what they thought were the original prebiotic conditions. The canonical effort, now a cliché of twentieth-century science history, was the 1952 “Urey/Miller experiment,” in which the chemists Harold Urey and Stanley Miller put ammonia, hydrogen, and methane inside a closed flask, circulated steam through this “atmosphere,” and added bolts of “lightning” in the form of periodic electrical sparks. All they got for their trouble were some amino acids (building blocks of proteins) that were not in the mixture to begin with. The Urey/Miller experiment was once considered a very big deal, but it isn’t by some of the protocell project’s scientists: “We are not searching in the black and hoping that something happens,” says the protocell researcher Uwe Tangen. “We’re really trying to engineer these things.”Attempting to build an artificial cell is hardly a new idea in biology, but the specific protocell design Packard and Hanczyc are working on originated with Packard’s longtime friend, the Los Alamos physicist Steen Rasmussen. Even as a boy in Denmark, Rasmussen liked to grapple with the big questions. He was by nature of a metaphysical turn of mind, and while still a kid he discussed subjects of cosmic import with his father, who was a bricklayer. Did the universe have a beginning—or an end? Where did it come from? Where was it going?Later, in the 1980s, Rasmussen, together with Chris Langton, Norman Packard, and some others, became one of the founding fathers of the artificial life (ALife) movement. Launched at a Los Alamos workshop in 1987, artificial life was an attempt first to simulate and then actually to create a new life-form. Supposedly there was to be “soft,” “wet,” and “hard” artificial life, existing in the form of software, wet chemistry, and robotics, but the reality of the situation turned out to be quite different. “Most of the activities in the artificial life community have been with simulations,” Rasmussen admits.For a long time, that was true even of Rasmussen himself, who over the years had run countless computer simulations of various life-forms, modeling their possible self-assembly routes, evolutionary development pathways, and so on. But his abiding passion had always been to understand what life was and how it arose. At length he decided that the best way to understand life was to make some of it himself, ab initio.In truth, he became obsessed with the idea. Although he lived in an adobe-style house surrounded by a number of natural life-forms, including his wife, Jenny, and three kids—no...

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Book Description Oxford University Press. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. 208 pages. Dimensions: 8.0in. x 5.2in. x 0.7in.Erwin Schrdingers 1944 classic What Is Life is a small book that occupies a large place among the great written works of the twentieth century. It is said that it helped launch the modern revolution in biology and genetics, and inspired a generation of scientists, including Watson and Crick, to explore the riddle of life itself. Now, more than sixty years later, science writer Ed Regis offers an intriguing look at where this quest stands today. Regis ranges widely here, illuminating many diverse efforts to solve one of sciences great mysteries. He examines the genesis of Schrdingers great book--which first debuted as three public lectures in Dublin--and details the fantastic reception his ideas received, both in Europe and America. Regis also introduces us to the work of a remarkable group of scientists who are attempting literally to create life from scratch, starting with molecular components that they hope to assemble into the worlds first synthetic living cell. The book also examines how scientists have unlocked the three secrets of life, describes the key role played by ATP (the ultimate driving force of all life), and outlines the many attempts to explain how life first arose on earth, a puzzle that has given birth to a wide range of theories (which Francis Crick dismissed as too much speculation running after too few facts), from the primordial sandwich theory, to the theory that life arose in clay, in deep-sea vents, or in oily bubbles at the seashore, right up to Freeman Dysons theory of double origins. Written in a lively and accessible style, and bringing together a wide range of cutting-edge research, What is Life makes an illuminating contribution to this ancient and ever-fascinating debate. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # 9780195383416

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