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Neanderthal Babies All Around: Synthetic Biology Is Closer Than You Think

George Church, genetics professor, at Harvard Medical School in Boston, 2011

George Church, genetics professor, at Harvard Medical School in Boston, 2011 Photograph by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

George Church—he of the beard, tall man’s lope and overwhelming credentials—has hit the circuit to promote a new book: Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. As the title explains, the book explores the field of synthetic biology, which centers on how man can program DNA to create things ranging from new fuels to seeds that grow into fully-formed houses. This subject often veers into the fanciful, and Church keeps up that tradition. Yet when he says things about bringing Neanderthals back to life, you have to take notice instead of chuckling.

For about the last 35 years, Church has been at the cutting edge of genetics and radical biology in academic and entrepreneurial settings. Today, he’s the professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, the super-sought-after adviser to more than 20 companies in genetics and synthetic biology, and co-founder of a handful of companies. Church, 58, relishes the academic side of his work and has scores of researchers doing cutting-edge stuff at his Harvard lab. That said, he likes to make sure that people see him as a man of action and not just some big brain in an ivory tower. “I still do things with my own hands,” he says.