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Book Review: Regenesis by George Church and Ed Regis

ISBN: 978-0-465-02175-8 Published in 2012

Subtitle: "How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves"

At little audacious, don't you think?

It took me a while to get into this book. I took biology in the last century and the first part of the book was pretty demanding. Lots of talk about enzymes, base pairs, the genome, monomers, polymers, polypeptides, and other technical terms. On the other hand, many far reaching concepts are introduced here as well - a built from scratch chemical system capable of replication and evolution - "the putting together of a living entity from its constituent parts." This particular project was started in 2006, and I have not heard of its success yet.

The other night I noticed a sign on a drink machine, indicating that the plastic bottles were made from 30% plant based plastic. Before reading this book, I probably would not have noticed. The plastic Mirel is described as being produced by a process not that far from brewing beer. An engineered microbe converts corn sugar into bio-plastic. No petroleum products needed! This is just one example of present day practical applications of engineered microbes. The DuPont fiber Sorona is made from sugars from renewable crops and is used to make the Mohawk Industries SmartStrand line of carpets.

Expanding on the theme of engineering microbes to do our bidding, the authors envision a grow it yourself house made from modified gourds. Still not available at Home Depot.

The book spends a fair amount of pages talking about the Mirror World. The mirror world is the term used to describe life forms made from amino acids and other molecules which have the opposite "handedness" of those that exist naturally. The authors posit that mirror humans made from such building blocks would be immune to all the known (non-mirror) viruses and other pathogens. They don't speculate on how long it would take for nature to come up with mirror pathogens to take advantage of this new opportunity.

As forward thinking as Church is, he outlines the devolution (his term!) of molecular technologists as the molecular technology improves - mentioning lazy students that are enticed by "kits" and "instruments" which put them out of touch with the basics. Is Church a closet Luddite?

E. coli gets a lot of print in the book. Just one example is a proposed iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machines - an annual competition held at MIT - see project to engineer the bacteria to produce a naturally occurring peptide that suppresses appetite. This is all to take place inside a person's gut, solving obesity with little or no effort on our part. Note that this was proposed as an undergraduate project, underlining how "easy" genomic engineering is becoming.

After the challenging first part the book gets easier to read. In the author's view, synthetic biology and synthetic genomics give hope for solving many of our most difficult problems.

I have already mentioned their solution to our weakness to viral attack - re-engineer ourselves as mirror humans, immune to all (known) pathogens.

Cure AIDS? Just redo our genome to remove the CCR5 gene which is host cell receptor for the HIV-1 virus.

In fact there has already been a person cured of AIDS. A patient in Germany, Timothy Ray Brown, with both leukemia and AIDS, was given a transplant from a blood stem cell donor who did not have the CCR5 gene. Brown has had undetectable amounts of the virus for 5 years.

Travel to Mars? This is a problem due to the radiation that humans will be exposed to. The solution? - re-engineer our genome using genes from bacteria that are naturally radiation resistant.

Cloning, the singularity, and immortality are predictably covered as the book becomes more speculative towards the end. In spite of the potential for abuse that some of these methods contain, the authors do not call for prohibition - noting that technology prohibition has never worked and in fact the duration that such prohibition remains effective keeps getting shorter and shorter. He makes an example of the current war on drugs in the US.

It is clear that Church thinks (way) outside the box. We need this to progress. This book was fascinating and eye-opening in discussing the accomplishments, but more so the potential, of synthetic biology.