Biology's Master Programmers
For more than a decade, synthetic biologists have promised to revolutionize the way we produce fuels, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. It turns out, however, that programming new life forms is not so easy. Now some of these same scientists are turning back to nature for inspiration.
- July/August 2012
- By Michael Waldholz
Photographs by Mark Ostow
George Church is an imposing figure—over six feet tall, with a large, rectangular face bordered by a brown and silver nest of beard and topped by a thick mop of hair. Since the mid-1980s Church has played a pioneering role in the development of DNA sequencing, helping—among his other achievements—to organize the Human Genome Project. To reach his office at Harvard Medical School, one enters a laboratory humming with many of the more than 50 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows over whom Church rules as director of the school's Center for Computational Genetics. Passing through an anteroom of assistants, I find Church at his desk, his back to me, hunched over a notebook computer that makes him look even larger than he is.
Church looms especially large these days because of his role as one of the most influential figures in synthetic biology, an ambitious and radical approach to genetic engineering that attempts to create novel biological entities—everything from enzymes to cells and microbes—by combining the expertise of biology and engineering. He and his lab are credited with many of the advances in harnessing and synthesizing DNA that now help other researchers modify microörganisms to create new fuels and medical treatments. When I ask Church to describe what tangible impact synthetic biology will have on everyday life, he leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head, and says, "It will change everything. People are going to live healthier a lot longer because of synthetic biology. You can count on it."
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