Creation: Q&A with Adam Rutherford

12 April 2013 by Pete Etchells, posted in News, synthetic biology

When it comes to science writing, we are very fortunate to be living in a world of plenty at the moment. Over the past year, we've had the chance to read some excellent books - Spillover by David Quammen, Extremes by Kevin Fong, and Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre all immediately spring to mind. Now, it's the turn of Dr Adam Rutherford - geneticist, science broadcaster, editor at Nature, and lover of Lego. His new book, Creation, is two books in one - in The Origin of Life, we are treated to a historical look at how Biology has developed over the past few hundred years, with a drive towards answering the question of how life arose. In The Future of Life, we are given an insight into the latest groundbreaking developments in synthetic biology, and what sort of implications this sort of biological engineering might have.
Recently, I got the chance to talk to Adam about his new book. Here's what he had to say.

What started your interest in synthetic biology, and in biology more generally?
I came from an evolutionary genetics background at uni, which morphed into developmental genetics as a researcher. This was back at the end of the century, so genetic engineering was mature but still very artisan. In the decade since, it's become more and more commonplace, and turned into the meat and potatoes of biology. Synthetic biology is the next stage, where the entry level for has been reduced to the extent that anyone can do it. This is the normal process of how technology becomes first invented and subsequently normalised, but the speed is breathtaking. Also, science itself has changed significantly in the last decade, with publishing norms being challenged and the speed and openness of discourse shifting. Synthetic biology is very much part of that  tectonic movement.

For readers who haven't come across it yet, what's Creation all about?
Creation is about two intimately related but separate forefronts of research. The first is the origin of life, and how via 300 years of biology we have reached a stage where we can really quiz the beginning of life on Earth. The second is about new lifeforms created by human agency, for engineering purposes. On the grounds that the best books about evolution have probably already been written, Creation is in effect the prequel and sequel [(c) Kevin Fong 2011]

Why is this book important, now?
Because my children are starving and clothed in hand me downs.

Creation is quite vast in its scope - it covers everything from basic chemistry and biology, to the history of science and the politics involved in synthetic biology. How do you go about researching and synthesising all of that into a coherent story? Is there anything that you would have liked to have included in the book, that you didn't have space for?
Much, but fortunately I have a brilliant editor who whipped it into shape. Narrative structure is everything in books, so each idea has to follow the previous and lead onto the next. There is a section which compares the nature of genetic engineering with the advent of sampling in music, and also how copyright and patent law are suboptimal when it comes to music and genetics, respectively. I found myself immersed in that chewy but fascinating world for several weeks. My editor's comment was 'interesting: cut it to a couple of paragraphs'. He was right.

Do you think the future of biological research lies in the hands of traditional scientific labs, venture capitalists, or amateur biologists?
A plurality of all three. We will probably see the first real products of synthetic biology emerge from the private sector, possibly with the malarial treatment artemisinin. There though, are the hallmarks of corporate responsibility, with royalty free distribution and co-funded by charity. There has been a big commitment from US and UK governments to develop synthetic biology research and innovation. And start-ups and amateurs are flourishing. The future is going to be excite.

Do you think there might be a danger in the private sector leading the way with synthetic biological research? Every now and again you get mavericks who flout the rules and press on with schemes - Russ George's geoengineering attempt off the coast of Canada comes to mind. do you think there are any risks like that for synthetic life?
The private sector is subject to the same legislation as publicly funded research, so in principle there shouldn't be a problem. Privately funded research is not my particular brand of vodka, but science is one of those things where throwing money at a problem can cure it. As long as the data is shared and innovation is not restricted by the enforcement of patent, then I can see progress being made in both sectors hand in hand.

If you could have worked in anyone's lab, past or present, who would you have worked with?
The LMB in Cambridge at pretty much any time in history would be fun, including now. George Church and/or Jack Szostak at Harvard. Ed Boyden at MIT. People who see things slightly differently. Also I'd like to do a Dr Who type vist to Darwin in the 1840s and just encourage him with the Captain Hindsight knowledge that he was scheming up pretty much the best idea anyone has had.

Do you have any advice for aspiring science writers?
1) Read a lot, and write alot. It's a trade and a craft, so practice.
2) Never be dull.
3) You may be the most bestest writer ever, but do remember that no-one is under any obligation to read you.

Neither. Nature is still way ahead of us when it comes to awesome creatures. How about Poecilotheria rajaei published last week? That's a spider as big as your motherfucking face.

Very special thanks to Adam for taking the time out to answer these questions. Creation: The Origin of Life/The Future of Life is out now at all good bookstores. Get it, get it now!

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