You probably know the scientist George Church from the extravagant media headlines that have referred to his work in one way or another-about bringing back the wooly mammoth, using CRISPR to put an animated GIF inside living DNA, and curing (or reversing aging). By his own measure, the Harvard Medical School and MIT professor does say things that sound implausible.
“A lot of the things I said when I was young were ignored or ridiculed by people in my own lab,” Church said. “After a few work out, it flips to the other state where, even if I say ridiculous things, I’m not ridiculed. And even the most ridiculous things have a non-ridiculous version.”
What makes Church headline-worthy is a rare mix of characteristics: He is in fact a scientific pioneer, he’s a vocal advocate for “citizen science,” and his physical appearance — tall, bespectacled, with a sweep of wavy grey hair and a big grey beard — references Albert Einstein, Doc Brown, and Charles Darwin.
It’s these first two characteristics that compelled us to visit Church in his lab at Harvard Medical School in late 2017. The combination of valuable scientific contributions and an ability to engage the public with big ideas is rare among scientists. Church’s contributions include, among many other things, developing the first methods for direct genome sequencing and the concepts that laid the foundation for all “next generation” sequencing (i.e., what makes it possible to sequence whole genomes quickly and affordably), and being the first to use the CRISPR/Cas9 system to edit genes in human stem cells.
Beyond being Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and MIT, Church has a leadership or advisory role in dozens of companies (sequencing, diagnostics, therapeutics, non-profits, etc); he’s a founding member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where he leads synthetic biology; and he’s collected a handful of awards, including the Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science and being elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
The day we visited, Church and his team of nearly 100 lab members, interns, and visiting scientists were working on projects like genetically engineering pigs so their organs can be transplanted into humans, engineering wild species to eliminate malaria and Lyme disease, and making cells resistant to all viruses. We spoke about these projects and their implications for human health. And while there, Church exhibited his usual openness to inquiry, allowing us to make ourselves at home in the lab — but he advised we avoid the fifth floor of the building, which doesn’t appear on the elevator button panel.