Passing the baton of life - from Schrödinger to Venter

Sixty-nine years ago, Erwin Schrödinger stood before a crowd at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and tackled one of the biggest questions of science: What is life? Last night, geneticist Craig Venter stood before a packed crowd at the very same college and asked that same question.

A decade after Schrödinger was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on atomic theory, the Austrian physicist was serving as the first director of the school of theoretical physics at the newly established Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. At a public lecture in February, 1943, he turned his attention to the physical nature of the gene. Little was understood about the composition of genes at that stage, but Schrödinger proposed that a gene could be thought of as an 'aperiodic crystal'.

That proved to be a key insight, said Luke O'Neill, professor of biochemistry at Trinity and master of ceremonies at last night's event. "The gene had to be stable, so it had to be a crystal, and it had to have information so it was aperiodic," he explained.

"Equally important, Schrödinger also discussed the possibility of a genetic code, stating the concept in clear physical terms." But while his specific insights had tremendous influence, the very fact that Schrödinger was viewing biology through a physical lens had a ripple effect through different disciplines. "A famous physicist writing about biology inspired many physicists and chemists to consider biological questions," O'Neill said.

Schrödinger's series of talks over the course of three Fridays and the book that followed went on to have an important influence on science. By looking at life from a physical perspective, Schrödinger inspired researchers including James Watson who, together with colleagues, worked out the double-helical structure of DNA in the 1950s and won a Nobel prize for the work in 1962.

How appropriate then, that as Venter took to the podium to offer a 21st century update of Schrödinger's lectures, Watson himself was in the crowd.

Venter, who has read Schrödinger's "little book" at least five times, delivered a potted history of discoveries about DNA and its functions in the cell. He described how genomes can now be sequenced in a relative lightning flash compared to the 'old' days of just 10 or 15 years ago, and he spoke about his team's work on artificially synthesising DNA to reboot cells.

"All living cells that we know of on this planet are 'DNA software'-driven biological machines comprised of hundreds of thousands of protein robots, coded for by the DNA, that carry out precise functions," said Venter. "We are now using computer software to design new DNA software."

The digital and biological worlds are becoming interchangeable, he added, describing how scientists now simply send each other the information to make DIY biological material rather than sending the material itself.

Venter also outlined a vision of small converter devices that can be attached to computers to make the structures from the digital information - perhaps the future could see us distributing information to make vaccines, foods and fuels around the world, or even to other planets. "This is biology moving at the speed of light," he said.


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