Rubbing Elbows and Dodging Bees With Synthetic Biology Pioneer George Church

On Monday I had the privilege of hanging out with Xconomist George Church and a few other distinguished scientists—Craig Venter, Freeman Dyson, Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, and Seth Lloyd—as they discussed some deep topics like the origin of life, the end of Darwinian evolution, and what will come next on our planet.

It all took place under a white tent on an impossibly pleasant late-summer day in the Connecticut countryside. We were hosted by the literary agent and cultural impresario John Brockman, who regularly brings together well-known visionaries and thinkers as part of his nonprofit Edge Foundation.

Church is one of those thinkers. An entrepreneur (Church has helped start some 22 biotech companies) and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, he is one of the founders of synthetic biology, a cutting-edge field that seeks to program cells and other living systems to do useful work (e.g., create renewable energy) much as engineers hack computers. Recognizing the tension between understanding the origins of life and creating new forms of it, Church said, “I’m more interested in the future than the past.”‘

In his informal talk, Church outlined some challenges he sees facing synthetic biology. The young field’s practitioners need to develop a “diversity and dispersion” of materials and approaches, he said. What’s more, they need to ensure that the benefits of their work outweigh both its risks and its costs. And Church said that synthetic biologists should broaden their ideas about what life is—for instance, keeping their minds open to what non-carbon-based life might look like.

After his talk, over a spread of pastries and blueberries, Church chatted about his latest startups, Cambridge-based Codon Devices and LS9 in Silicon Valley—and why they’ve taken off much faster than any of his previous companies. The key to Codon Devices, he said, was that they didn’t go in too early. In fact, Church’s lab had already established a large customer base for its unique tools for doing DNA production and manipulation. “We had so many people asking us for favors, we couldn’t get any science done,” he said.

That could be a useful lesson for biotech startups. “If you’re ahead of everyone else, that might mean you don’t have anything yet,” Church said. “That can be the wrong way to go.”

Meanwhile, LS9 has taken off even faster thanks to its novel approach to making synthetic petroleum and other biofuels, tapping into the booming renewable energy sector. The idea was to genetically engineer bacteria to produce hydrocarbons, and to some extent, the company got lucky: out of its first three lines of bacteria, two of them worked. “Sometimes things happen when you get smart people together,” said Church.

With that, however, an unusual-looking bee (fat and fuzzy, with a bluish body) landed on Church’s forearm and promptly stung him. Nothing like real biology to bring you back to earth.

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