George Church, 58, is a pioneer in synthetic biology, a field whose aim is to create synthetic DNA and organisms in the laboratory.
During the 1980s, the Harvard University professor of genetics helped initiate the Human Genome Project that created a map of the human genome. In addition to his current work in developing accelerated procedures for sequencing and synthesizing DNA, he has also been involved in the establishing of around two dozen biotech firms.
In his new book, “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves,” which he has also encoded as strands of DNA and distributed on small DNA chips, Church sketches out a story of a second, man-made Creation.
SPIEGEL recently sat down with Church to discuss his new tome and the prospects for using synthetic biology to bring the Neanderthal back from exctinction as well as the idea of making humans resistant to all viruses.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by “soon”? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?
Church: That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so. The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before. In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning. We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?
SPIEGEL: Perhaps because it is banned?
Church: That may be true in Germany, but it’s not banned all over the world. And laws can change, by the way.
SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?
Church: Well, that’s another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what’s technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.
SPIEGEL: So let’s talk about possible benefits of a Neanderthal in this world.
Church: Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.
SPIEGEL: How do we have to imagine this: You raise Neanderthals in a lab, ask them to solve problems and thereby study how they think?
Church: No, you would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn’t it be ethically problematic to create a Neanderthal just for the sake of scientific curiosity?
Church: Well, curiosity may be part of it, but it’s not the most important driving force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the recreation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.
SPIEGEL: Setting aside all ethical doubts, do you believe it is technically possible to reproduce the Neanderthal?
Church: The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.
SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an “extremely adventurous female human” could serve as the surrogate mother.
Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.
SPIEGEL: Could you also stop the procedure halfway through and build a 50-percent Neanderthal using this technology.
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