Genetics

Neanderthal Babies All Around: Synthetic Biology Is Closer Than You Think


George Church, genetics professor, at Harvard Medical School in Boston, 2011

Photograph by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

George Church, genetics professor, at Harvard Medical School in Boston, 2011

George Church—he of the beard, tall man’s lope and overwhelming credentials—has hit the circuit to promote a new book: Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. As the title explains, the book explores the field of synthetic biology, which centers on how man can program DNA to create things ranging from new fuels to seeds that grow into fully-formed houses. This subject often veers into the fanciful, and Church keeps up that tradition. Yet when he says things about bringing Neanderthals back to life, you have to take notice instead of chuckling.

For about the last 35 years, Church has been at the cutting edge of genetics and radical biology in academic and entrepreneurial settings. Today, he’s the professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, the super-sought-after adviser to more than 20 companies in genetics and synthetic biology, and co-founder of a handful of companies. Church, 58, relishes the academic side of his work and has scores of researchers doing cutting-edge stuff at his Harvard lab. That said, he likes to make sure that people see him as a man of action and not just some big brain in an ivory tower. “I still do things with my own hands,” he says.

Regenesis opens with some fairly fantastic notions. For one, there’s talk of going all Jurassic Park on the world and bringing mammoths and other creatures back from extinction. Why would we want to do such a thing? Well, it turns out that mammoths clomped around in the tundra and stopped trees from growing and taking over vast grasslands. The increase in trees since their disappearance has contributed to warmer temperatures because the trees don’t reflect light or consume carbon dioxide as well as grass. “We need practical reasons as well as inspirational ones with this technology,” Church says.

The thought experiment turns more intriguing when the subject of Neanderthals comes up. Church has tests running in the lab around Neanderthal cells as he tries to determine what this species might have looked and acted like. “I am 3.8 percent Neanderthal,” says Church, who has had his genome sequenced. “One of my ancestors mated with a Neanderthal, and I am not embarrassed by that.”

Church figures it’s only a matter of time and proven safety before people start picking out traits for their offspring and cloning entire children. “Almost all technology in this area is banned until it works,” Church says. “In vitro fertilization was banned, and now it is immoral to deny an infertile couple their birthright to have a child produced by their bodies. At some point, someone will come up with an airtight argument as to why they should have a cloned child. At that point, cloning will be acceptable. At that point, people will already be choosing traits for their children. What politician will tell a parent that they can’t spend their hard-earned money on getting an extra 50 SAT points for their child as long as it’s safe?”

Right, but what about the Neanderthals? I can’t let that one go.

“We have lots of Neanderthal parts around the lab. We are creating Neanderthal cells. Let’s say someone has a healthy, normal Neanderthal baby. Well, then, everyone will want to have a Neanderthal kid. Were they superstrong or supersmart? Who knows? But there’s one way to find out.”

While controversy often accompanies such talk, Church says he’s avoided slings and arrows throughout his career. “I’ve been bracing for the backlash for 20 years,” he says. It’s important to have discussions about these complex issues early and in a rational manner before the technology gets ahead of the talk, he adds. “Let’s do some safety engineering first and come up with some solutions to problems,” he says.

How far off is this brave new world? Well, according to Church, probably not far at all. “The cheap human genome was supposed to arrive 50 years from now,” he says. “It arrived this year. What if a cheap Neanderthal or mammoth arrives 50 years ahead of time?”

Church reckons that training seeds to grow into chairs or houses should be well within in our reach. “Trees are essentially growing chairs,” he says. “There are lots of primates that sit and sleep in them. That’s not visionary.”

Bringing back species from the dead or modifying species will take a bit more work. “You basically have to design a dinosaur from an ostrich because of limitations with old DNA,” he says. “You have to find a way to return the teeth and tails and arms. We will get there. I wouldn’t put anything out into the next century. We just got a 1-million-fold improvement in reading and writing DNA in the last six years. I think the developmental biology that we’re talking about is something we could knock off in much less than a century. The same goes for eliminating disease and making a big dent in aging and poverty.”

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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