George Church, Harvard genetics professor, banters with Stephen Colbert

George Church, the genetics professor at Harvard Medical School who leads an effort to analyze and share the genomes of 100,000 people, ventured far from his Longwood Medical Area laboratory to appear on The Colbert Report last night.

Instead of fielding questions about the scientific details of his work, DNA sequencing, or the many companies and technologies he has built over the years, Church gamely answered questions like, “How do you think your work will eventually destroy all mankind?’’ and “Are you playing God, sir? Because you certainly have the beard for it.’’

Church held his own against Colbert’s typical onslaught of banter and questions as he explained his efforts to create new organisms that could solve real-world problems, for example, by providing alternative fuel sources. He also spoke about the Personal Genome Project, which aims to share the genes, environments, and traits of thousands of people with the world.


Colbert was quick to propose an alternative method to accomplish the same goal: “There’s another way to do that, and it involves getting it on.’’

Church laughed and said he wanted to be able to analyze the data with a computer.

Church was there to promote his new book, “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves,’’ and Colbert summarized it as describing the work of Church and colleagues — “I’m not going to say mad scientists, I’m going to say highly inventive scientists.’’

At the end of the segment, Church reached into his jacket and handed Colbert a tiny vial with a slip of paper inside, including a dot circled in red. Church explained he had taken his book, used a code to create a DNA version of it, and then made 20 million DNA copies of the nearly-300 page book, then deposited all those copies on the slip of paper.

Colbert looked from the hardback copy of the book in one hand to the slip of paper with interest, astonishment, and then a gleam of mischief, as he moved it toward his open mouth. Church lunged across the table to stop him from eating his words.

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