JANUARY 21, 2013
Nextbigfuture has covered George Church's work and his recent book Regensis several times.
We had previously covered his approach to resurrecting the Wooly Mammoth and Neanderthals which is one of the main focuses of the Der Spiegel interview.
Full blown Genomic Engineering for resurrection the Wooly Mammoth and Neanderthal
This could be done with MAGE (Multiplex automated genomic engineering) technology. MAGE was also developed by George. Genomic Engineering works a few nucleotides at a time. MAGE works in a wholesale fashion.
1. Take the elephant genome
2. Break it into 30,000 pieces of 100,000 DNA units in length
3. Use a reconstructed Mammoth genome as a template
4. Select the important changes to make to the elephant genome
5. Reassemble the changed pieces
6. Transfer into the egg cell for the female elephant to give birth to the new Mammoth clone
The same can be done for the Neanderthal.
However, the important thing is that if the technology of genomic engineering can do these kinds of miracles then other radical biology will also be possible.
CRISPR is an RNA-guided editing tool for facile, robust, and multiplexable human genome engineering.
CRISPR needs 20 base pairs of RNA for targeting. The previous best genetic engineering method TALE Nuclease used 2000 base pairs for targeting and was about 0.37% accurate for targeting.
CRISPR is 100 times easier to create the targeting and 10 to 20 times more effective at targeting than prior approaches.
Church: The fact is that we already have organisms that can produce fuel compatible with current car engines. These organisms convert carbon dioxide and light into fuels by basically using photosynthesis. Synthetic fuel can currently be produced in the tens of thousand of liters. The cost is $1.30 a gallon for synthetic fuel. And the price will go down. Most of these systems are at least a factor of five away from theoretical limits, maybe even a factor of 10.
Synthetic Biology for Medicine
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 ... 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.
Could we improve humans genetically in this way?
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.
In order to find out [which genes to change for longevity], 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.
It's too early to say [about results of analyzing supercentenarians]. 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 …
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.