At nine years of age, George Church saw a searing vision of the future. He saw a sleek and modern world of possibility enabled by new technologies, amazing computers, picture-phones, and moon colonies, and his imagination caught fire, National Geographic reports in a profile of the Harvard biologist.
"It just struck me as the kind of place where we all deserved to live," he says.
The place Church envisions is not Queens, NY, the site of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair where he saw the exhibits from IBM, Bell Systems, and General Motors, but in a future where technology makes the impossible possible. He tells Nat Geo that after the fair he kept waiting for the future to happen, and eventually wanted to help make it happen himself.
Today, he is deeply involved in some of the genomics research and development and entrepreneurial areas that look likely to have a big impact on the near and distant future.
Church playfully dubs the Personal Genome Project he launched "the Facebook of DNA," and suggests that social networking has brought about changes that make more projects like the PGP possible.
"Openness has changed since many of us were young. People didn't use to talk about sexuality or cancer in polite society," he says.
Additionally, Church says CRISPR genome editing technology, which is the basis for the Editas company he co-founded, has "almost limitless" potential, in part because of how it could be used to insert DNA into a cell in vivo.
"It's like you throw a piston into a car and it finds its way to the right place and swaps out with one of the pistons while the motor's running," he says.
Nat Geo also asks Church about the prospect of bringing back, or the "de-extinction" of, the woolly mammoth.
He thinks the easiest way would be to begin with an elephant genome and transform it into a mammoth's, using genome editing and the MAGE (multiplex automated genetic engineering) technology. What you would probably end up with is a mammoth-elephant hybrid that incorporates the best features of both creatures, he says. The same methods potentially could be used to bring back a Neanderthal as well, he says.
While Nat Geo raises the specter of "playing God," Church says that generally means people think there are risks to using a new technology, but he adds that there are risks to not pursuing a technology as well.
"There's a dark side to every technology," he says. "New technologies always have a higher ratio of scary stories associated with them because they're still unknown."