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George Church and the potential of synthetic biology

A few weeks ago, I explained why I thought biohacking was one of the most important new trends in technology. If I didn’t convince you, Derek Jacoby’s review (below) of George Church’s new book, Regenesis, will. Church is no stranger to big ideas: big ideas on the scale of sending humans to Mars. (The moon? That’s so done.) And unlike most people with big ideas, Church has an uncanny track record at making his ideas reality. Biohacking has been not so quietly gaining momentum for several years now. If there’s one book that can turn this movement into a full-blown revolution, this is it. — Mike Loukides


George Church and Ed Regis pull off an exciting and speculative romp through the field of synthetic biology and where it could take us in the not too distant future. If anyone with less eminence than Church were to have written this book then half this review would need to be spent defending the realism of the possibilities, but with his track record if he suggests it’s a possibility then it’s worth thinking about.

The possibilities are mind-blowing — breeding organisms immune to all viruses, recreating extinct species, creating humans immune to cancer. We’re entering an age where the limits to our capabilities to re-make the world around us are limited only by our imaginations and our good judgement. Regenesis addresses this as well, for instance proposing mechanisms to create synthetic organisms that are incapable of interacting with natural ones.

Although the book is aimed at a non-technical general audience, the science is explained in excellent detail and is well-referenced for further study.

As the book documents, we’re in the middle of an exponential increase in genomics capabilities that dwarfs even the pace of change in the computer industry. In such a rapidly changing field if you can imagine a plausible technical approach to a problem, no matter how difficult or cumbersome it may be, then soon it’s likely to become easy.

To give an example of an idea long discussed in science fiction, the book addresses re-creating extinct species. Surprisingly, there is already a successful example of this having occurred! The Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo, is a type of mountain goat that went extinct in 1999. But before the last ibex died, researchers scraped a few tissue cells from the ear of the last surviving ibex. They were able to induce the skin cells to become stem cells, and then in a process called interspecies nuclear transfer cloning they were able to fuse those stem cells with de-nucleated donor goat eggs, implant the eggs into domestic goats, and successfully birth a living ibex. By extension, the book examines the implications of reviving the wooly mammoth, or even neanderthals.

Similar detailed examples and discussions take the reader through the potentials of synthetic biology to transform fuel production, food production, waste processing, medicine, and even engineering of the human genome to produce Homo evolutis. Church’s background is in directed evolution — he invented many of the most powerful techniques to rapidly evolve portions of a genome to possess specified characteristics. To hear the inventor of such a powerful technology explore the ramifications of it is a real treat. Society will be exploring the issues raised in this book for many years — how to take advantage of the ability to re-engineer life while protecting against the risks that such a powerful technology must bring.

Refreshingly, in Church’s view protecting against those risks need not exclude amateurs and citizen scientists. Regenesis proposes a licensing scheme, but much more akin to a driver’s license than a formidable hurdle, and suggests a model where a combination of engineering techniques and basic shared procedures is sufficient to protect against any reasonable threats to safety while still ensuring the widest possible access to the technology.

Regenesis provides an accessible and engaging introduction to the revolutionary potentials of synthetic biology and should be of interest to both experts and a general science audience.

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