H

arvard biologist George Church burst into the headlines (yet again) last week when he helped organize a closed-door meeting of scores of top scientists to discuss accelerating efforts to create synthetic DNA — including a complete human genome. They’re considering launching a decade-long drive to build, from scratch, all the genes that make humans human.

The meeting raised all sorts of ethical questions. But that’s nothing new for Church. He has been stirring controversy, and excitement, in the scientific community for decades. He wants to reanimate the woolly mammoth, edit pig genes so their organs can be transplanted safely into people — oh, and reverse aging.

In short, you’ll want to keep an eye on him. Here’s a start:

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Who is George Church?

He’s the Harvard biologist who has become as famous for his Stephen Colbert appearances and for looking like Charles Darwin, Santa Claus, or God (depending on your bent) as for his many seminal scientific discoveries.

So, who is he most like, Darwin or … ?

Darwin explained how species evolve. Church wants to turbocharge that process by putting new genes into organisms rather than waiting around for them to evolve those genes on their own. For instance, he is using CRISPR, the revolutionary genome-editing technology he helped develop, to alter 62 pig genes at a time, which might allow their organs to be transplanted into people without being rejected.

Church has also got a bit of Santa in him, bringing the gift of his imagination — and his name — to so many private companies (as advisor, cofounder, or consultant) that his conflict-of-interest slide is notorious.

As for his divinity, not yet. But he has embarked on efforts to resurrect the dead (mammoths, as he explained at a 2013 TedxDeExtinction talk) and smite the living (mosquitoes that carry malaria and other disease-causing pathogens, via a revolutionary technique called gene drive).

Something tells me Church lore is voluminous.

Indeed. He’s known for subsisting for months on nutrient broth sold to nourish cell lines and for wearing blinders around his lab to remind his students not to succumb to tunnel vision.

A bit of an iconoclast, then?

More than a bit.

When the scientific consensus was moving against engineering the human germline — altering DNA in eggs, sperm, or early embryos so the changes are passed down into successive generations — he told STAT the idea sounded fine to him. After all, he noted, making such genetic tweaks could potentially cure entire families of devastating inherited illnesses, such as Huntington’s, once and for all.

When ethicists and lawyers were getting hysterical about genetic privacy, warning that your insurer might drop you or bad actors might blackmail you if they could peek at your genetic blueprint (and thus deduce, for instance, your propensity to develop certain diseases), Church went the other way. In 2005, he launched the Personal Genome Project, inviting volunteers to have their DNA sequenced and then deposited in a public domain for all to see.

“Public sharing of genetic data is an explicit goal,” the project’s website explains; the more data, the more the possibility of making important discoveries from it, Church figures.

Has he made any important discoveries?

Tons.

In 1978, as a student at Duke, Church helped determine the three-dimensional structure of transfer RNA, a key genetic molecule. He spent so much time in the lab he failed a course and was expelled from the graduate program; a believer in transparency in all things, Church has posted the “you’re out” letter from the dean.

In the 1980s he helped develop DNA sequencing, which made Church think of himself as an engineer as much as a biologist.

It also led to some hard feelings. Church was reportedly angry when Eric Lander, a key player in the Human Genome Project of the 1990s, bought different DNA sequencing machines and not the ones Church developed. When Lander came under fire this year for his account of the development of CRISPR, Church was vocal with his own criticism.

In 2013, Church raced a former junior scientist in his lab, MIT’s Feng Zhang, to a draw in the competition to make CRISPR work in human and other mammalian cells just months after scientists led by Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, had CRISPR’d DNA floating in test tubes. Zhang had no idea his former mentor was even working on CRISPR, he told STAT.

In between tRNA and CRISPR, Church coauthored hundreds of scientific papers, from “Predicting regulons and their cis-regulatory motifs by comparative genomics” to “Characterization of Cas9-guide RNA orthologs.”

What made him want to be a scientist?

The 1965 World’s Fair in New York City, according to a recent interview he gave the Harvard Gazette. He saw the future (animatronic robots, touch-screen computers), noticed it hadn’t arrived yet, and decided, “if I want that, I have to work for it.”

The Unisphere
The Unisphere was built in Queens for the 1964-1965 World’s Fair as a symbol of world peace. Frank Franklin II/AP

Can he create that future by remaining in academia?

Not solely.

Church has cofounded about one company per year since 2005 and plans to add nine to that in 2016, each with one of his entrepreneurial postdoctoral fellows.

As he told the Gazette: “It’s not sufficient to just write out a patent and lob it over the fence. You have to accompany it. … Probably 10 percent of my time is spent making sure that the technologies that I work on get a fair shake in the marketplace.”

Why would he want to create entire genomes from scratch?

Church has been circumspect about this because he has submitted what is reported to be a blockbuster paper on genomes-from-scratch, also known as “de novo synthesis,” to the journal Science. But he has talked about how building a de novo genome (which would require creating about 3 billion chemical letters) might, eventually, be easier than using CRISPR to edit, say, a big-muscle gene, or an HIV-AIDS-resistance gene.

At a recent genomic hackathon in Cambridge, Mass., he said that “someday we’ll build genomes that are resistant to cancer.”

That (plus the CRISPR’d pigs) must be enough futuristic projects for him.

Not a chance. Church is only warming up.

He has never lost his love for his decades-ago work on DNA sequencing, and thinks we’re this close to developing cheap handheld sequencers. Then, when some idiot sneezes all over you, you can whip out your sequencer, catch droplets, and get a readout of whether they contain cold viruses that you’re resistant to (phew), viruses you’re susceptible to (wash hands and face right now), or a pathogen that can kill you.

“My prediction is we’ll have real-time sequence-based identification” of ambient germs, Church told the hackathon.

I’m not afraid of germs. What’s he got for me?

About 48 potential gene therapies are “in the pipeline in our lab” to reverse aging. Church hasn’t said if he’d like to be a guinea pig, but if he is, just wait and see what happens to the Darwin/Santa/God beard.

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