Interview with George Church: Can Neanderthals Be Brought Back from the Dead?

Part 2: Is Church Playing God?

SPIEGEL: Germans are traditionally scared of genetically modified organisms.

Church: But don't forget: The ones we are talking about won't be farm GMOs. These will be in containers, and so if there's a careful planning process, I would predict that Germany would be as good as any country at doing this.

SPIEGEL: There has been a lot of fierce public opposition to genetic engineering in Germany. How do you experience this? Do you find it annoying?

Church: Quite to the contrary. I personally think it has been fruitful. And I think there are relatively few examples in which such a debate has slowed down technology. I think we should be quite cautious, but that doesn't mean that we should put moratoriums on new technologies. It means licensing, surveillance, doing tests. And we actually must make sure the public is educated about them. It would be great if all the politicians in the world were as technologically savvy as the average citizen is politically savvy.

SPIEGEL: Acceptance is highest for such technology when it is first applied in the medical industry ...

Church: … yes, and the potential of synthetic life is particularly large in pharmaceuticals. The days of classic, small molecule drugs may be numbered. Actually, it is a miracle that they work in the first place. They kind of dose your whole body. They cross-react with other molecules. Now, we are getting better and better at programming cells. So I think cell therapies are going to be the next big thing. If you engineer genomes and cells, you have an incredible amount of sophistication. If you take AIDS virus as an example ...

SPIEGEL: ... a disease you also want to beat with cell therapy?

Church: Yes. All you have to do is take your blood cell precursors out of your body, reengineer them using gene therapy to knock out both copies of your CCR5 gene, which is the AIDS receptor, and then put them back in your body. Then you can't get AIDS any more, because the virus can't enter your cells.

SPIEGEL: Are we correct in assuming you wouldn't hesitate to use germ cell therapy, as well, if you could improve humans genetically in this way?

Church: Well, there are stem cell therapies already. There are hematopoietic stem cell transplants that are widely practiced, and skin stem cell transplants. Once you have enough experience with these techniques you can start talking about human cloning. One of the things to do is to engineer our cells so that they have a lower probability of cancer. And then once we have a lower probability of cancer, you can crank up their self-renewal properties, so that they have a lower probability of senescence. We have people who live to be 120 years old. What if we could all live 120 years? That might be considered desirable.

SPIEGEL: But you haven't got any idea which genes to change in order to achieve that goal.

Church: In order to find out, we are now involved in sequencing as many people as possible who have lived for over 110 years. There are only 60 of those people in the world that we know of.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any results already?

Church: It's too early to say. But we collected the DNA of about 20 of them, and the analysis is just beginning.

SPIEGEL: You expect them all to have the same mutation that guarantees longevity?

Church: That is one possibility. The other possibility is that they each have their own little advantage over everybody else. What we are looking for is protective alleles. If they each have their own answer, we can look at all of them and ask, what happens if you put them all in one person? Do they cancel each other out, or do they synergize?

SPIEGEL: You seriously envisage a new era, in which genes are used as anti-aging-cures?

Church: Why not? A lot of things that were once left to luck no longer have to be if we add synthetic biology into the equation. Let's take an example: virus resistance ...

SPIEGEL: ... which is also achievable using synthetic biology?

Church: Yes, it turns out there are certain ways to make organisms of any kind resistent to any viruses. If you change the genetic code ...

SPIEGEL: ... you are talking about the code that all life forms on Earth use to code their genetic information?

Church: Exactly. You can change that code. We're testing that out in bacteria and it might well be possible to create completely virus-resistant E. coli, for example. But we won't know until we get there. And I am not promising anything. I am just laying out a path, so that people can see what possible futures we have.

SPIEGEL: And if it works in bacteria, you presumably could then move on to plants, animals and even humans? Which means: no more measles, no more rabies, no more influenza?

Church: Sure. And that would be another argument for cloning, by the way, since cloning is probably going to be recognized as the best way of building such virus resistance into humans. As long as it is safe and tested slowly, it might gain acceptance. And I'm not advocating. I'm just saying, this is the pathway that might happen.

SPIEGEL: It all sounds so easy and straightforward. Aren't biological processes far more complicated than you would like to lead us to believe?

Church: Yes, biology is complicated, but it's actually simpler than most other technologies we are dealing with. The reason is that we have received a great gift that biology has given to us. We can just take a little bit of DNA and stick it into a human stem cell, and all the rest of it is self-assembled. It just happens. It's as if a master engineer parked a spacecraft in our back yard with not so many manuals, but lots of goodies in it that are kind of self-explanatory. You pick up something and you pretty much know what it does after a little study.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand that there will be people who feel rather uncomfortable with the notion of changing the genome of the human species?

Church: I think the definition of species is about to change anyway. So far, the definition of different species has been that they can't exchange DNA. But more and more, this species barrier is falling. Humans will probably share genes with all sorts of organisms.

SPIEGEL: First you propose to change the 3-billion-year-old genetic code. Then you explain how you want to create a new and better man. Is it any wonder to you when people accuse you of playing God?

Church: I certainly respect other people's faith. But, in general, in religion you wouldn't want people to starve. We have 7 billion people living on this planet. If part of the solution to feed those people is to make their crops resistant to viruses, then you have to ask: Is there really anything in the Bible that says you shouldn't make virus-resistant crops? I don't think there's anything fundamentally more religiously problematic about engineering a dog or a cow or a horse the way we have been doing it for 10,000 years versus making a virus-resistant crop.

SPIEGEL: Virus-resistant crops is one thing. Virus-resistant humans is something altogether different.

Church: Why? In technology, we generally don't take leaps. It's this very slow crawl. We are not going to be making a virus-resistant human before we make a virus-resistant cow. I don't understand why people should be so deeply hurt by that kind of technology.

SPIEGEL: Apart from religious opposition, biotechnology also generates very real fears. Artificial lifeforms which might turn out to be dangerous killer-bugs. Don't we need special precautions?

Church: We have to be very cautious, I absolutely agree. I almost never vote against caution or regulations. In fact, I requested them for licensing and surveillance of synthetic biology. Yes, I think the risks are high. The risks of doing nothing are also high, if you consider that there are 7 billion people who need food and are polluting the environment.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, do you believe in God?

Church: I would be blind, if I didn't see that faith in an overall plan resulted in where we are today. Faith is a very powerful force in the history of humanity. So I greatly respect different kinds of faith. Just as I think diversity is a really good thing genetically, it's also a good thing societally.

SPIEGEL: But you're talking about other people's faith. What about your own faith?

Church: I have faith that science is a good thing. Seriously, I'd say that I am very much in awe of nature. In fact, I think to some extent, "awe" was a word that was almost invented for scientists. Not all scientists are in awe, but scientists are in a better position to be in awe than just about anybody else on the planet, because they actually can imagine all the different scales and all the complexity. A poet sees a flower and can go on and on about how beautiful the colors are. But what the poet doesn't see is the xylem and the phloem and the pollen and the thousands of generations of breeding and the billions of years before that. All of that is only available to the scientists.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, we thank you for this conversation.

Correction: The editors have removed the word "hell" from the first answer provided by Mr. Church. He did not use the term -- it was added during the editing stage of the interview. We apologize for the error.

Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle.

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