On Tuesday night, George Church told us that a fascination with animatronic Abraham Lincoln at the 1964 World’s Fair partially inspired him to become a scientist.

This seems fitting, somehow, since Church, a Harvard Medical School geneticist and joint Harvard-MIT professor of health sciences and technology, spent much of the night talking about potential applications for his work that felt straight out of a fairground exhibit touting the world of the future.

His program, “Engineering Human Genomes & Environments” detailed the basics of reading and, more importantly, editing the human genome with the intention of benefiting society. The ideas he discussed included:

  • Using wooly mammoth genes to save Asian elephants from extinction.
  • Helping carriers of rare genetic diseases have healthy children by editing the DNA in their sperm or eggs to eliminate the risks of passing on these recessive genes.
  • Growing pathogen-resistant organs in pigs and transplanting them into humans.
  • Altering mosquito population genetics to prevent the spread of malaria.

It’s wild stuff, right? But Church made it all seem so possible—almost easy.

In a conversation about his penchant for “crazy ideas” Church admitted to having a quite few.

“Some of them I won’t mention to anybody, because they’re crazy dangerous,” he joked, adding that he definitely wouldn’t act on those thoughts.

He encouraged young scientists to pursue their own idiosyncrasies, too.

“You are the best judge of what motivates you,” he advised, relating tales of his own extensive academic struggles from repeating ninth grade to completely restarting graduate school.

Clearly, Church has discovered what motivates him—making the present into the future through genomic engineering. We can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next! 

The program was co-hosted with the Council of Scientific Society Presidents and The Kavli Foundation. 

The CSSP started the evening by presenting the "Carl Sagan Award for Public Appreciation of Science" to former-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. The Sagan Award's purpose is to honor those who have become concurrently accomplished as researchers and/or educators, and as widely recognized magnifiers of the public's understanding of science.