Week Three: Creation


Adam Rutherford’s Creation is a gripping account of the synthetic biology revolution: how it is both unlocking the mystery of life’s origin and providing the means to engineer new life-forms from scratch.

Week Three: Creation
Images of cancer cells that have been genetically engineered to produce versions of proteins that can be easily tagged with another molecule that emits different colours of light.

Split into two books, Creation presents two sides of the same coin. The Origin of Life is a fascinating, four-billion-year detective story that uses the latest science to explain what life is and where it first came from, offering answers to the very grandest of questions before arriving at a thrilling solution. This same science has led to a technological revolution: the ability to create entirely new life forms within the lab, known as synthetic biology. The Future of Life introduces these remarkable innovations, explains how they work, and presents a powerful argument for their benefit to humankind.

With his work closely linked to both sections of the book, Dr Christopher Tynan from the Central Laser Facility in Oxford tells us about research into cell communication and how it hopes to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in the future, as well as how books like Rutherford’s Creation can be simultaneously informative and inspirational.

Making sense of noise

Ten years ago, when I was a fresh-faced Physics graduate who still wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I grew up, a popular science bookinspired me to move into biological research (Life's Other Secret by Ian Stewart). I switched from probing the quantum quirks of atoms to stalking individual biological molecules as they go about their daily business in the complex environment of human cells. Imagining life on the scale of a single protein requires you to leave all your hard won common sense ideas about the nature of the world at the door. On this scale nothing is ever still, seemingly static structures are really in a state of constant flux, random motions are harnessed to produce unexpectedly specific behaviour and a never ending tug-of-war between a mind boggling number of competing processes driven by fundamental chemistry, physics and mathematics come together to somehow produce amazing levels of regulation and organisation.

My research group seeks to make sense of some of the noise, complexity and networked activity that Rutherford talks about in Creation. We use advanced laser microscopes to study a group of proteins found on the surface of human cells that are responsible for receiving signals from the outside. These proteins pass the messages to the inside of the cell so that decisions can be made about which genes should be activated. This communication and decision making process is crucial for the correct development of embryos and to make sure that cells are behaving the way that they need to be to fulfil their function in the body. Faulty communication by these proteins contributes to the development of breast and lung cancer so it is not surprising that new anti-cancer drugs have recently been discovered that affect them. These drugs aim to block the faulty communication in tumours so that other treatments such as chemotherapy are made more effective, but unfortunately the intricacy of cells means that they can develop resistance to these new drugs. Combined with the unique personal nature of every cancer this means that it is difficult to predict how much benefit individual patients will gain from what can be an expensive course of treatment given that they may nonetheless produce unpleasant side effects.

Hopefully as we develop our understanding of how cells decipher external signals correctly (or incorrectly) and the consequences of blocking this with anticancer drugs, we will join up with the work of geneticists who are approaching the problem from the opposite direction by mapping the thousands of changes to genes that accumulate in cells that become cancerous. In the process, the path to even better personalised diagnosis and treatment of cancer will be revealed.

This kind of work increasingly requires the input of many people with a huge range of expertise. In addition to myself as a biophysicist, my research group contains cell biologists, physicists, chemists, biochemists, molecular biologists, a mathematician and even an astronomer! This is all before taking into account the medical science and computer modelling groups elsewhere in the UK and abroad who also collaborate with us on our project. I can only imagine that this state of affairs will become even more pronounced as the field of synthetic biology blossoms and that a well-informed general population will be equally necessary to properly assess the merits and risks of new advances. I dearly hope that Adam Rutherford’s book will inspire many others, as I once was, to accept the challenge of understanding the complexity of life.

Dr Christopher Tynan is an Experiment Leader at the Central Laser Facility near Oxford and works in the OCTOPUS imaging cluster, which exploits advanced microscopy and analysis to address grand challenges in the life sciences.