George Church
Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School
02:53

Technology in Perspective

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“Why would anybody want a computer?”

George Church

George Church is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a professor of health sciences and technology at Harvard and MIT. In 1984, Church, along with Walter Gilbert, developed the first direct genomic sequencing method and helped initiate the Human Genome Project. Church is responsible for inventing the concepts of molecular multiplexing and tags, homologous recombination methods, and DNA array synthesizers. Church initiated the Personal Genome Project in 2005 as well as research into synthetic biology. He is director of the U.S. Department of Energy Center on Bioenergy at Harvard and MIT and director of the National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence in Genomic Science at Harvard, MIT and Washington University. He is a senior editor for Nature EMBO Molecular Systems Biology.

Transcript
So when something like personal genomics or synthetic biology suddenly appears – it seems to suddenly appear – we might have been working on it for 30 years, but it seems to come out of no where. Then you need strategies for engaging a lot of people and thinking about where it will be going in the next few month or few years. The Internet was such a thing that came very quickly, it seemed, even though some of the infrastructures were built in the ‘60s. In the ‘70s, people would say, “Why would anybody want a computer?” And by 1993 in one year, it went from zero web sites to many millions. And the same thing . . . But they’re in unintended consequences that weren’t fully articulated to the broad public. Probably should have been for the Internet. So for example, cyber stalking, identity theft, addiction to computers, hackers, spam, and so forth. These were really not fleshed out. They just said, you know, something good will come of it, and a lot of good things did. Same thing with personal genomics. We need to figure out how you’re gonna actually make it useful, which means you need to be able . . . people need to think about how they’re going to share the information with other people. Are they gonna be scared of it and not want to know it themselves? Are they gonna wanna know it themselves, but not share it with anybody, and therefore not really know it? They have this big pile of Gs, As, Ts, and Cs, and if they don’t share it with anybody they won’t learn anything about it. And so you need . . . we need to pursue this minefield and find ways that people can feel safe about sharing, at least in a research sense. So that’s one thing . . . it’s kind of an ethical, legal, social issue that we’ve been working with on the personal genome project very proactively. And then synthetic biology. Our technology and others create a situation where people could synthesize organisms that are either new or old. Old things like small pox, which we thought was extinct and not available to anybody because the information is available they could recreate it. It’s not sufficient for all the good guys to say, “We will be good guys.” You need to actually have an active surveillance mechanism where you’re looking to see people . . . they’re doing things where either they don’t know what they’re doing, don’t fully appreciate what they’re doing, or they’re actively being terrorist-type actions. Recorded on: 7/6/07


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