George Church Visits Colbert

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics George M. Church appeared on "The Colbert Report" with 20 million copies of his new book, co-authored with Ed Regis, in his front jacket pocket (don't worry, it's a DNA trick!). The book is called "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves," and according to Colbert, it may contain information that "will eventually destroy all of mankind." In reality, the book is actually about the many possibilities presented by synthetic biology, one of which is digital information storage in DNA.

According to Church, the science of creating information-storing DNA could condense 20 million books onto a small slip of paper, which is exactly what Church did with his own book. Other applications of synthetic biology would make it possible to create living beings from scratch, prevent genetic diseases from occurring during a person's lifetime, and store incredible amounts of information inside a tiny genome sequence.

"I'm excited about this project because of what it means for long term data storage," said Doug G. Evans '15, who worked in Church's lab over the summer. "You could then take the entire Library of Congress and have it inside a vial." In order to get the final product of 20 million books stored in a tiny splash of DNA, Church and colleagues had to convert all of the text and pictures in the book into binary code—that’s 1's and 0's for those of you who never took CS50—then translate those digits into the DNA base pairs. Once the text is converted, it takes relatively little time to replicate one strand 20 million times.

In addition to his digital data storage project, Church is working on a number of other exciting ventures at his lab in Boston, including the Personal Genome Project. As Church told Colbert, "It's the only project in the world that allows us to share our genes, our traits, and our environmental data with everybody in the world." Scientists at the lab map volunteers' genomic data and share it publically on the internet (we're told Professor Steven Pinker's genome is in there somewhere if anyone's interested).

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