Every now and again, I stumble across a book, an article, or some other source of information that brings together various disparate bits of knowledge I have collected over the years. The book I am about to tell you about was, for me, just such a experience.
I read and own the book as the UK edition
which is a flip book, with one side opening on Creation, the Origin of Life, and the flip side opening on Creation, the Future of Life. The physical layout of the book (my early print version, at least) is both interesting and unusual for a book today in that it is actually divided into two short monographs which are both featured as flip side front covers. That is the reader can select the monograph on the origins of life, or flip the book and select the monograph on the future of life.
The books have a reference and bibliographic section following the text for each. Rutherford has made good use of footnotes throughout the text to explain, expand, or to provide short backstories on salient points. This helps to keep unnecessary detail from the main prose lines, and at the same time helps to explain or clarify many crucial points.
The book is due out in mid-June as a U.S. edition and slightly retitled
Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself. (I am not fond of this U.S. rewrite of the title as I think much is lost in the translation from the two previous subtitles.)
This particular book was recommended to me by a friend and former coworker, Dr. Sanh Le. I thank him for calling it to my attention, and I highly, highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in this direction or who has ever wondered about some of the considerations of the earliest of evolutionary biology.
For about the past ten years, I have been interested in genetic testing for genealogy. Naturally in my travels and general reading about DNA, I have wondered from time to time, just how did all of this marvelous, intricate, extraordinarily complex, cellular machinery found in a cell come to be? I somehow missed ever having taken a formal course in biology. But I did have one course in biochemistry, once upon a time, back when the Earth and the dirt on it was young. I have long sought to make up that gap in my knowledge with general, but unstructured reading in areas of interest to me such as physiology, molecular biology, and related areas.
Dr. Adam Rutherford, a geneticist, a BBC Four TV personality (The Cell), an editor for the science journal Nature, and a writer for The Guardian newspaper,
does a terrific job in pulling together fundamental questions on the origins of life. Moreover he does so in a non-technical way as he presents various views of possible answers to those questions.
If one is somewhat familiar with DNA, RNA, cell biology and other aspects of molecular biology as well as of chemistry and what is known of the Earth's origins, then there is likely to be relatively little new information here. What is new is the perspective and overview that Rutherford manages to pull together on the understandings surrounding this rather large body of knowledge.
The book avoids any illustrations and offers only word images and descriptions, thus does not not get bogged down in details or chemical structures, which unfortunately is a turn-off for some readers. Personally, I feel that some carefully chosen illustrations would have helped, but do not consider the lack of them a serious flaw. This book, then, is not a text book nor a primer on any of the topics covered, but rather a view from a height suitable for the general lay reader. In this, the book is unique in my experience.
Rutherford in the Origin of Life takes you on a journey to examine in light of all of the advances and understandings to date of DNA and the genome, what the first life on this planet may have looked like. Of course, we cannot know for sure what that first, oh so primitive form or forms, may have been, as such a fragile structure does not leave a fossil record. Or does it?
While it is highly unlikely that a fossil could ever be discovered, there are quite a few things that are known about ALL life as we know it. Rutherford pulls these observations together for the lay reader to make a convincing case of some of the salient features of the earliest life forms.
First, ALL known forms of life, without exception, involve cells.
- All 20 amino acids, the building blocks of the functional proteins that make up the machinery of cells, are chiral in the same left handed sense.
- All life forms utilize these same small list of amino acids, though myriad of other molecular structures are possible.
- All DNA and RNA involve the same deoxyribose structures to build the sides of the DNA/RNA ladder.
- ALL nucleic acid "rungs" which encode information are created from the same four nucleic acids, abbreviated here as A, T, C, and G and for RNA as A, T, C, and U.
- All DNA double helices are right handed helices in terms of the direction of the spiral.
- And on and on and on...WITHOUT EXCEPTION.
The second half of this book is a short monograph on the future of life. We stand at the beginnings of what may well become known as the age of the genome and/or the age of biotechnology with advances occurring at what approaches an exponential rate. That there could be other renditions and substitutions at the molecular level to create new forms of DNA and other basic molecules is the purvey of what is called, for the moment, synthetic biology.
I am not talking about cloning here, but rather designed molecules that have no counterpart in nature, but which can be tailored to have certain functions at the cellular level. Owing to the use of nonnatural, designed molecules in the cell, then further reproduction is shut down because no natural cell has the machinery to duplicate them and thus perpetuate a new form of life.
Again Rutherford pulls together the diverse threads of what is happening in this nascent field to generate a picture of both optimism and comfort that such efforts, which are carefully guarded by the very people doing this work who recognize their responsibilities, are being made to be fail safe so as to only bring benefit and not cause catastrophe to future generations.
Rutherford points out several times that the cell is a fantastically complex piece of biologic machinery and science is many, many decades away, if ever, from being able to create artificial life based on cellular processes.
If you are up for a bit of video drama, check out the Hidden Life of the Cell. This BBC produced animation gives some idea of the complexity of a cell -- any cell -- not just human cells as portrayed here. It is sort of a science fiction-like story of an invader, an adenovirus, [pictured as an invading cohort of tiny black "death stars"] out to take over a cell in order to reproduce itself.
Well done, this video is a bit longish at 57 minutes, but it does help to acquaint by means of its powerful story and drama, what is undoubtedly going on inside you at some level at multiple sites within your body at this very moment. Oh yes, viruses are not glistening, black entities, the mitochondria do not glow, and neither does the cell nucleus. And there is no dramatic music accompanying the epic struggles (or if there is music, then it is very, very quiet.)
If this glimpse sort of leaves you in awe, then terrific, because this is NOT science fiction, but rather it is science fact. It is quite real and very, very, very, very well substantiated by decades of data and consistent findings.
But this Hidden Life of the Cell begs the question, so how did all of this marvelous, fantastic sack of molecular machinery and DNA coded instructions begin? Well, that is the point of Rutherford's excellent book, in which he examines this question in easy to understand detail and then looks to the future of where we are now and where our understanding is likely to lead.
This was a Guest Post from Walter J Freemen. Let us know if you liked it.