Biology’s Master Programmers

Technology Review | June 20, 2012

By Michael Waldholz

For more than a decade, synthetic biologists have promised to revolutionize the way we produce fuels, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. It turns out, however, that programming new life forms is not so easy. Now some of these same scientists are turning back to nature for inspiration.

George Church is an imposing figure—over six feet tall, with a large, rectangular face bordered by a brown and silver nest of beard and topped by a thick mop of hair. Since the mid-1980s Church has played a pioneering role in the development of DNA sequencing, helping—among his other achievements—to organize the Human Genome Project. To reach his office at Harvard Medical School, one enters a laboratory humming with many of the more than 50 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows over whom Church rules as director of the school’s Center for Computational Genetics. Passing through an anteroom of assistants, I find Church at his desk, his back to me, hunched over a notebook computer that makes him look even larger than he is.

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