Feature

Book of the week: Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford

For anyone hoping to join the conversation on genetic engineering, this “brave” and thoughtful book makes a great place to start.

(Current, $28)

“It’s hard not to get excited” about the near future that Adam Rutherford foresees, said Chloë Schama in Smithsonian. An editor at Nature with a Ph.D. in genetics, he’s a deft explainer, and he sets a stage in the first half of this eye-opening book by providing a fast-paced, “rather elegant” summary of how 4 billion years of evolution has worked at the cellular level. But it’s when he turns to the ambitions of scientists who are re-engineering existing cells that many readers will become giddy. Rutherford introduces us to a goat that produces spider’s silk in her milk and a brewer’s yeast that generates diesel. He even shows us an E. coli bacterium that—if a NASA-led project goes according to plan—will one day enable astronauts to create concrete from moon dust.

Throughout, Rutherford “puts his training to fine, explanatory use,” said Karen R. Long in the Los Angeles Times. Granted, his headlong charge through such challenging subjects as molecular geometry and the mechanics of DNA replication makes this “a book best read with a mug of coffee, not beer.” But Rutherford has a gift for crafting “felicitous analogies” that carry a lay reader along. Scientists who practice synthetic biology aren’t playing gods, he tells us, as much as they’re playing sample-happy hip-hop producers—“copying, adapting, and transforming what has come before.” He’s also not afraid of an occasional grand statement. Soon, “for only the second time in 4 billion years,” he writes, a life will be created independently of any existing cell—this time in a laboratory.

“For me, the highlight of the book comes near the end,” said John Gribbin in The Wall Street Journal. Rutherford’s “clear and compelling” takedown of the fearmongers who hope to halt all genetic engineering unmasks many of their warnings as sensationalistic hokum. Yet I wished he’d shown “a little less hubris” while championing the optimists’ view, said Nick Lane in The Observer (U.K.). As a researcher myself, I understand that today’s genetic engineers are “merely shuffling the gene pack” in the same way nature does. But concerns about something going awry can’t be summarily dismissed. All of us interested in debating the risks and rewards of genetic engineering need to know the subject better. Despite its one blind spot, Rutherford’s “brave,” “genuinely thoughtful” book makes a great place to start for anyone hoping to join the conversation.

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