It takes millions of years for a new species to evolve. George Church says he can do it in days. The towering, bearded 56-year-old Harvard Medical School professor is a pioneer in the fast-growing field of synthetic biology, in which scientists manipulate DNA to create organisms that don't exist in nature. Soon, researchers may be able to develop waterproof cotton or bananas that stay ripe for months, according to scientists in Church's lab.
Most synthetic biologists laboriously tweak a genome one small piece at a time, then look at how the new cell behaves. Church, along with researchers Farren Isaacs and Harris Wang, has invented a technology, known as multiplex automated genetic engineering, or MAGE, which makes the process much faster. The table-top machine they created allows researchers to make 50 different genome alterations at nearly the same time. Combined with the mutations that occur as those cells go on and reproduce, MAGE can create billions of cellular mutations in a matter of days, essentially speeding up evolution. Scientists can then identify the most useful mutations.
Church's team was able to genetically alter a common bacterium, E. coli, to produce lycopene, an antioxidant in tomatoes that may help fight cancer. Some of the altered bacteria produced five times the normal quantity of lycopene. The team spent just three days and $1,000 in supplies to produce the bacteria. Using old techniques, it would have taken months, says Church.
This isn't the first time Church has played scientific revolutionary. He helped launch the government-funded Human Genome Project, which successfully decoded the entire genetic blueprint in 2000, after a spirited race against a private effort led by geneticist Craig Venter. Both teams shared credit for the accomplishment. Church and Venter are once again in a race: In May, Venter and his team successfully inserted a fully customized strand of DNA into a living cell, creating what they call the "first synthetic genome." Church says MAGE can achieve similar results faster and cheaper. His lab's device will go on sale later this year for about $90,000, and at least a dozen companies, including chemical giant DuPont (DD) and biotech startup Amyris, are considering purchasing it, says Wang.
Playing around with insects and pond muck as an 8-year-old launched Church into biology and was one of his "earliest thrills," he says. Computers grabbed his attention as well, and by ninth grade he was programming simple video games. At Duke University, he figured out how to combine his two passions while working in a lab that helped construct the first 3D representation of tRNA, a small genetic molecule. Says Church: "I became obsessed with automating the rest of biology—in particular reading and writing DNA."
PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard
A table-top machine that creates dozens of DNA variations
Witnessing the transformation of a water bug into a dragonfly