the technology of eternal life
the people and history of nanotechnology
In 1943 Erwin Schrodinger gave a series of lectures, published as the book What is Life? in 1944. This proved very influential on the development of genetic biology: Crick, Watson, and other prominent biologists claim to have been strongly influenced by it. 50 years on, there was a follow-up, a series of essays discussing its contribution. Now, 65 years on, and the scene is almost unrecognisable. Regis brings us up-to-date, partly based around various synthetic biology approaches to building life from scratch.
There's lots of great historical detail, from the early days of genetics, the discovery of DNA, the discovery of its structure, a review of the 50-year follow-up conference, theories of the origin of life, and some of what's happened recently, including the various 21st century artificial cell projects such as PACE that are beginning to take off.
And here is were the story diverges from Schrodinger's view. There it was about genetics, about reproduction, about replication, being the essence, the defining qualities of life. But Regis' account focuses on metabolism as the key property. After all, "Anyone who felt so inclined could forgo reproduction for their entire lives, but no one could do without metabolism for a moment without extremely serious consequences." There is even a suggestion that metabolism came well before replication in the origin of life: the "Garbage-bag World" model has bags of metabolisms reproducing (but not replicating), and only later having their mechanisms hijacked by RNA and DNA.
So there's lots of good, thought-provoking stuff here.
I've included the quotation above for two reasons; firstly, because it highlights to importance given to metabolism; but secondly, for the fact that the choice of tense makes me grind my teeth when I read it. Apart from the beginning and ending chapters, talking of present-day events, all the intermediate "historical" chapters have everything in the past tense, including things that are not historical, past, over, but are still the case. When I read "metabolism was the process by which an organism maintained itself", I immediately think "so what is the process now?"; when I read "Your metabolism was responsible for the fact..." I immediately think "so what is responsible now?"; and so on, and so on. I am continually having to think "oh, he doesn't mean it's no longer true; it's just his idiosyncratic choice of tense." This is published by Oxford University Press: what was the editor thinking?
Nevertheless, worth reading, even if through gritted teeth.