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Church Opens Up

Understanding how genomes work and how to manipulate them could dramatically change human life as it has been known, but it will require much more openness, Harvard University's George Church tells The Economist.

In a profile in the magazine's Technology Quarterly edition, Church says the human genome and genomics in general can be used to eradicate diseases, extend lifespans, bring back extinct species, create unlimited renewable energy sources, and more, he says.

In the short-term more openness will be needed to achieve some of these goals, he says, so that is why Church has made his genome available as the first entrant in the Personal Genomes Project. He wants the genome sequencing and analysis effort to eventually enroll 100,000 participants, and then to expand from there.

"We’re constructing it a little like Wikipedia, which has beat out all the proprietary closed systems. If enough people see enough benefit from it, it could scale to a billion people," he tells the magazine.

Church says the arrival of the first human genome via the Human Genome Project was a milestone for basic research, but when it was completed around the turn of the milleniaum he already had much vaster, and more practical, ambitions.

"What I really wanted was for everybody to have their genome and ideally everybody to share their genome, and for that we needed to bring the price way down."

In his career since developing the first method for direct genome sequencing, Church has pursued these genomic applications in part through the 12 startup companies he has helped to found, and through the others he advises.

Through Genia, which was recently acquired by Roche, he aims to commercialize nanopore sequencing and bring the cost of a sequencing a genome to around $100. With Joule Unlimited, Church wants to engineer bacteria to convert waste carbon dioxide directly into fuels.

"Making new petroleum should be as simple and straightforward as brewing beer," he explains.

He also dreams of bringing back certain extinct species from the dead, through the Revive and Restore project, such as the Wooly Mammoth, and using genomic alteration to change humanity for the better, by making people virus resistant or enabling them to have much longer lives.

But will people be willing to undergo genetic manipulation to achieve some of the benefits he imagines? He points to the commonness of cosmetic surgery as a sign that people will not shy away from genetic manipulation.

"We already are radically different from our ancient ancestors, augmented with cellphones, computers, cars, and jets. To draw a sharp line between physics and biology doesn't make any sense."