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Microlands: The Future of Life on Earth, by J. Craig Venter and David Ewing Duncan

Microlands: The Future of Life on Earth, by J. Craig Venter and David Ewing Duncan

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Order the UK edition here and US edition (titled The Voyage of Sorcerer II) here.

Microlands: The Future of Life on Earth (and why it’s smaller than you think)
By J. Craig Venter and David Ewing Duncan
Belknap Press/LittleBrownUK

See Below for the Table of Contents and Sample Excerpts from the Book.

Read my essay in Vanity Fair about the book:
The Next Climate Change Calamity?: We’re Ruining the Microbiome, According to Human-Genome-Pioneer Craig Venter
In a new book, a Vanity Fair contributor presents the oceanic evidence that human activity is altering the fabric of life on a microscopic scale.

Also check out my commentary in Scientific American:
Carbon in the Oceans Is Altering the Micro-Fabric of Life: Humans are feeding the invisible world of ocean microbes a punishing diet of pollutants, boosting the impact of climate change and hastening the destruction of life as we know it.

“An epic travelogue, brimming with the excitement of discovery…will undoubtedly shape our understanding of the global ecosystem for decades to come.” – Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies

“Inspiring…change[s] our ideas of how biology is done” - Telegraph

Description: You’ve heard of the human microbiome. Did you know the Earth has one, too? In total, our oceans, soil, sky, plants, and animals are home to 5x1030 (five million trillion trillion) microbes that are the true masters of our planet. This book is an epic science and adventure story of famed geneticist Craig Venter’s voyages from 2003-2018 in a 100-foot sailing and research vessel that collected microbes all over the world—and revolutionized how we view this tiny, invisible world. Voyages also details how humans and climate change are altering the Earth’s microbiome in ways that are not healthy for us or for the ecosystem we live in. (Harvard U Press/ LittleBrownUK)

“We humans may think we are the most important species on Earth, but we’re actually just bit players…in this exciting journey into that deeper world, Venter and Duncan expand our scope of what it means to be alive.” – Jamie Metzl, author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity

“This fascinating tour of Planet Microbe is a strong reminder that we're now messing with systems we barely understand, and whose power is so hard for us to intuitively grasp. One hopes that knowledge and appreciation might constrain us some.” – Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

“Writing with award-winning science journalist Duncan, Venter presents a lively account of a groundbreaking exploration of the microbiome of the Earth’s waters…Important and adventurous science on the high seas.” – Kirkus Reviews

“An exhilarating account of how creative science is accomplished. I highly recommend it.” – Sir Richard J. Roberts, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

“A fascinating inside look at Venter’s historic expeditions that makes the experiences, the analysis, and the transformative discoveries come alive.” – Margaret Leinen, Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego

“A ripping tale of how a sailing adventure and science can be combined to revolutionize our understanding of our bodies, the oceans, and the planet.” – Jack Gilbert, Director of the Microbiome and Metagenomics Center, UC San Diego School of Medicine

Look for my articles about the book and impact of climate change on the microbiome of Earth coming out in early September in Vanity Fair and Scientific American.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Erling Norrby Author’s Note
Prologue: Thinking Big about Small
Part I: In Search of Microbes
1. Sargasso Sea Surprise
2. Planet Microbe
3. The Oceans Genome Goes Meta
Part II: The Voyages
4. Halifax to the Galapagos
5. French Polynesia to Fort Lauderdale
6. Questing Distant Seas (Further Explorations)
Part III: Outcomes
7. A Peek into Near-Infinity
8. More Microbes than Stars
9. A Microbial “Inconvenient Truth”
Epilogue: Thinking Bigger about Small

About the Authors

J. Craig Venter is founder, Chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit research organization. He is cofounder of the biotechnology companies Celera, Synthetic Genomics, and Human Longevity, Inc. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he has received numerous public honors and scientific awards, including the US National Medal of Science.

David Ewing Duncan is an award-winning science journalist. A contributor to Wired, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, National Public Radio, ABC News, The Atlantic, and National Geographic and the bestselling author of eleven books published in twenty-one languages, he was founding director of the Center for Life Science Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Sample Excerpts:

Thinking Big about Small

This tale starts big before it gets small.

Really small.

The big part starts like this. A man with a grizzled white beard, a deep tan, and ice-blue eyes stands alone at the helm of the Sorcerer II, a hundred-foot-long sliver of fiberglass and Kevlar slicing through a gray-blue sea. All around him on this overcast summer day in 2018 the ocean roils in steady, meter-high combers in a modest breeze. Above the ship’s bow, two huge canopies of sails swell as the wind buffets the sheets. Lulls interspersed with puffs cause the great mainsail, stretching some seven stories high, to ripple and then fill up and then go slack again over and over in undulating patterns that make it look almost alive…

It’s hard to tell what the bearded man is thinking. Scanning the sea with a look of intense concentration, he is focused on details of wind, water, and sail, probably to exclusion of everything else, even the science he is famous for. In 1995 he was the first to sequence the complete genome of a living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. In 2000 he won the race to map the human genome, having completed the sequencing in record time using technologies and techniques that he mostly thought up and led teams to develop. In 2010 he synthesized a novel organism, creating in his lab the complete genome of a tiny bacterium assembled from the AGCTs of DNA not from nature but out of a bottle. When he and his team booted up this artificial genome in a cell, it came to life.

Craig Venter, the man at the helm of Sorcerer II, didn’t perform these feats quietly or humbly. As well-known as he is for his science, Craig is also known for having a brash personality and unorthodox ideas that sometimes rattle more traditional scientists. Also a consummate risk-taker, Craig has responded to his many critics by mostly succeeding at what he sets out to do in the lab, just as he takes chances and often wins when he races sailboats, cars, and motorcycles. When he combines his passions—in this case, sailing and bioresearch—the result is a hybrid adventure and scientific voyage like the one we are on today.

“Am I a bit of an adrenaline junky?” says Craig. “Yes…”

When Craig started his around-the-world ocean quest in the early 2000s—officially called the Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) expedition—microbiologists and other scientists dismissed his project to survey large swaths of the world’s oceans for microbes as pointless. They were certain that there was limited micro life in the sea. They also called it an adventure-travel vacation posing as science by a man who loves to sail. This wasn’t the careful, contained, quiet work that tends to be the norm in science, they said. Rather it was the sort of wanderlust that drove explorer-scientists of the nineteenth century, as when the young Charles Darwin sailed the HMS Beagle mostly searching for new (macro) life. It is a style of discovery that seems random and uncontrolled to most modern researchers—but not to a risk-taker like the man with the ice-blue eyes.

At some point today, the crew will ease the sails on this luxury-yacht-turned-research-vessel as they stop and take on board two hundred liters of seawater. They will deploy instruments to measure the water’s temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen levels, and more. To collect samples the seawater will be sucked up using a pump that’s dropped into the ocean and dragged beside the boat using a long pole. Once samples are on board, scientists will force the water through a series of micropore filters housed in round holders made of stainless steel, mounted on a rack in the aft cockpit of the boat.

The filters will catch microorganisms of different sizes, with only the smallest making it through to the last filter. The microbes collected on the filters will then be frozen and sent to the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California. There, researchers will work to identify the microbes using advanced sequencing technologies, mathematics, and artificial intelligence programs that Craig and his team have helped to invent and refine over the years…

Before scientists…began to peer through their microscopes, no one imagined that such a world existed. And…much of this world has yet to be explored. Its organisms remain hidden, secret, and ignored despite inhabiting virtually every nook and cranny of our planet. As you read this, some thirty-eight trillion bacteria reside in your body. They are everywhere, from the tip of your incisors to your small intestine to the alveoli that absorb oxygen in your lungs. And while most people still think of bacteria as odious pests best snuffed out with antibiotics—an unfortunate residue of the germ theory that in the nineteenth century revolutionized the identification and treatment of bacterial infectious diseases—the truth is that without them you would die sooner than if you had them on board.

Most bacteria inside you and living all over our planet are beneficial, some even vital. For humans, bacteria help us digest food and modulate our immune system. Bacteria, it turns out, connect all living species, linking us with the soil, waterways, and atmosphere of our planet in a vast web that lives and breathes almost like a colossal organism itself—five million trillion trillion individual cells that undergird and also support the macro flora and fauna that make up the world we can see, from oak trees and hummingbirds to ladybugs, Labradors, playful dolphins, and you.

In a little-known twist to the “inconvenient truth” narrative written by former US vice president Al Gore—about how human activity has increased carbon buildup in the atmosphere—the flood of carbon and other pollutants into the environment also is altering the balance of microbial species on planet Earth. Excessive carbon is threatening to disrupt the system in the oceans that supports phytoplankton that absorb CO2 and produce as much as 80% of Earth’s oxygen. More carbon also means microbes that thrive in places that are low-oxygen environments are increasing. They live in so-called dead zones: stretches of oxygen-depleted water often drenched in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus from fertilizers that wash off crops and lawns. In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, a dead zone stretches six thousand square miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Another one, in the Gulf of Oman at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, is ten times larger, at 63,700 square miles. Dead zones cause abnormalities such as slowing or stopping the growth of shrimp. At their worst, they don’t support fish and other oxygen-breathing macro-organisms at all.

Human activity is thus undermining the work of those five million trillion trillion single cells that help to keep healthy the global ecosystem supporting people and life as we know it. If this sort of disruption continues, the microbes will adapt and survive as they have throughout the three-and-a-half billion years they have existed on Earth—including the early years when the atmosphere contained much more carbon than it does today. But it’s highly unlikely that humans will undergo such quick adaptation…

On this gray afternoon in the Gulf of Maine in 2018, the Sorcerer II expedition is nearing its end as Craig gazes once more at the vast sea churning and swelling around him. “I have to force myself to imagine that every milliliter of sea out there has a million bacteria and ten million viruses,” he says. “I still see it as this wondrous beautiful thing, but what it really is a massive, living soup—one that we are still exploring, as we try to learn the great secrets it holds about life on Earth.”

Title in the US: The Voyage of Sorcerer II: The Expedition that Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceana’s Microbiome
By J. Craig Venter and David Ewing Duncan
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press (LittleBrownUK in the UK)