A singular obsession defines George Church’s life. He wants to crack open the cellular machinery of every human on Earth and read their genetic blueprint.
Tall and thin with an enormous white puffy beard and hair to match, Church looks like he’d be as comfortable at Hogwarts as he’s been at Harvard Medical School , where he is a professor of genetics, over the past three decades. His projects can seem just as wizardly. Church has explored everything from reversing aging to resurrecting the woolly mammoth, and he helped launch the revolutionary Human Genome Project (HGP), which sequenced human DNA in its entirety.
But it’s another goal – one Church has never stopped working on – that could carry the greatest potential to alter life on our planet. Ever since his work on HGP, he’s been trying southern Kansas singles to sequence the rest of us. And he wants to use that information to shape how we pick our mates.
From Parent to Child
The blueprint of any life-form can be found in that organism’s DNA. These strands are condensed into packages called chromosomes; humans have 23 pairs. At the moment of conception, an embryo gets one copy of each – including tens of thousands of genes – from each parent.
In general, genes for a particular trait are either dominant or recessive. Dominant genes overpower recessive ones. So, a child dealt both a dominant and a recessive gene ends up with the trait encoded by the dominant gene.
Most of us carry recessive genes for various diseases inside our DNA. We can go through life unharmed because we also have a healthy, dominant copy of the gene. But when two parents who each carry a defective copy of a gene have a child, there’s a risk that their offspring could end up with two defective copies of the gene. Worldwide, roughly 5 percent of children are born with serious birth defects caused by a single gene
However, if each of us had our genome sequenced – and used it to choose lovers – we could change that. Church estimates such an effort would effectively end some 7,000 genetic diseases, from sickle cell anemia to cystic fibrosis. Stretched to its fullest potential, he says, it could save 50 million lives a year. That’s Church’s goal.
Update: In , Church announced a dating app called Digid8 meant to do just that. Speaking to the MIT Technology Review , he claims it would run in the background of other dating apps, preventing those with identical recessive genes from meeting and having children.
He likens genome sequencing to the internet back in the early 1990s. Sure, it existed, but people didn’t know what to do with it. Its world-changing potential sat for years, waiting to be unlocked.
Several things have held back Church’s dream. Until recently, the price of full genome sequencing was too high, and not enough people were willing to get sequenced – either because they didn’t see the value or had privacy concerns. Church and others have largely solved the first problem. Now, he’s convinced he’s found a solution to the other.
The Alta Summit
For five days in mered Alta Ski Area in the Wasatch Mountains outside Salt Lake City. Between powder runs, the world’s top geneticists hunkered down in the lodge and brainstormed. The U.S. government had invited them there to help detect genetic mutations among atomic blast survivors and their children. Their consensus: The technology wasn’t there yet, but it could be. As the snowed-in scientists advanced their talks, they inadvertently launched one of the largest, most expensive research endeavors in history: the HGP.