George Church: The Future Without Limit

Geneticist George Church tinkers with DNA to fight disease, create new biofuels, and perhaps even resurrect extinct species.


In the future, George Church believes, almost everything will be better because of genetics. If you have a medical problem, your doctor will be able to customize a treatment based on your specific DNA pattern. When you fill up your car, you won’t be draining the world’s dwindling supply of crude oil, because the fuel will come from microbes that have been genetically altered to produce biofuel. When you visit the zoo, you’ll be able to take your children to the woolly mammoth or passenger pigeon exhibits, because these animals will no longer be extinct. You’ll be able to do these things, that is, if the future turns out the way Church envisions it—and he’s doing everything he can to see that it does.

George McDonald Church is a big man, six feet five inches tall, with a full beard and a deep, reassuring voice. At his lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston, the 59-year-old molecular engineer supervises a team of 90 or so graduate students, postdocs, visiting scientists, and staff as they undertake cutting-edge science. They’re manipulating DNA, RNA, and proteins—the basic tools of the genetics revolution—to accomplish futuristic tasks such as developing new medical therapies, creating biofuel technologies, and laying the groundwork for de-extinction.

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